The UCLA Bruins ran their season record to 32-6 by dominating the LSU Tigers, 59-45, in the Final Four Saturday night in Indianapolis in a game which wasn't as close as the final score indicates. Those 32 wins ties the all-time single-season record for most wins in a season by UCLA throughout its storied basketball history.
UCLA did the job the way they've been doing the job all year, playing perhaps its finest defensive performance of the year against the young, but dangerous Tigers team which boasts at least one future NBA lottery pick (Tyrus Thomas), another future first round pick (Glen Davis), a probable second round pick (Darrel Mitchell) and two other possible future pros (Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple). UCLA's roster contains some likely NBA prospects as well (Jordan Farmar, first or second round), Arron Afflalo (first or second round), Ryan Hollins, as well as potential future pros Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Lorenzo Mata. But you can see the talent differential quite clearly: LSU simply has better individual players than UCLA.
But as we all know, basketball is a team game, and especially so in college, where the head coaches have much more of an impact than in the NBA. Chalk this victory up to Ben Howland and his staff, who have clearly built a juggernaut this season and started one of the most dominating programs in the country. Ben Howland and his staff have simply instilled more of the team ethic in their players than is true of John Brady and his staff. And Howland & company did a better job of preparing their players to play this game. As soon as the opening tip came down, UCLA began to not only harass the Tigers with their typical defensive intensity, but they pushed the ball up the floor at a dizzying pace, unleashing a transition game not seen heretofore in the Bruins' arsenal this season, a tactic which neutralized the great advantage LSU might otherwise have enjoyed inside against the Bruins in a half-court game. Hence, the UCLA victory, despite the fact that CBS, ESPN and most of the national media probably consider this to be a major disaster for college basketball, one that promotes UCLA's "ugly" style of basketball.
Since we're all Bruin fans and have watched for the last 3 years as Howland has undone all the damage done to the program by Steve Lavin and built UCLA back into a national power, we're not fooled by the ignorant bleating of the media sheep herd which refuses to recognize that UCLA's style of play is one of beauty. It has been many years since a college basketball team displayed the combination of fundamentals, execution and effort which UCLA showed Saturday night on both sides of the court. The Memphis and LSU games notwithstanding, the Bruin offense has been a model of efficiency for much of the season. The Bruins came into the NCAA Tournament having led the Pac-10 in team FG% at 48.3%, a figure that exceeds that of LSU or Memphis. The Bruins have struggled to score at times in the tournament, but the stats speak for themselves. The Bruins play the game the right way on both sides of the ball.
And that's what happened in Indianapolis Saturday night. With the Bruins choking off LSU's inside attack and forcing the Tigers to rely on jump shots at the defensive end of the floor, the Bruins got easy transition baskets by Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and Darren Collison at the other end of the floor. Combine that with an early 3-point barrage by Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, and the Bruins ran out to an 18-8 lead at the 12:25 mark of the first half. Please note that the Tigers had scored just 8 points in the first 7 minutes and 35 seconds of the game. And then things got worse for the Tigers, as they continued to force up one bad shot after another or turn the ball over against UCLA's defensive pressure. Once again, this was a total team effort by the Bruins, as Ben Howland substituted liberally and often, running Farmar, Afflalo, Cedric Bozeman, Mbah A Moute, Ryan Hollins, Collison, Mike Roll, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya in and out of the game while LSU, with its short bench, quickly became exhausted. Despite having a number of players in foul trouble, the Bruins continued their aggressive attacking style and just ran by or through the Tigers, seemingly at will. The Bruins went on an 8-1 run between the 7:37 and 3:34 marks of the first half to push their lead to 33-17. The Tigers' star, Glen "Big Baby" Davis, was so worn out by the frantic pace that he had to call timeout and take himself out of the game during this Bruin run. By halftime, it was 39-24, UCLA.
The Bruins came out in the second half and continued to push the pace, even as the Tigers resorted to a zone defense in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding. UCLA was up 50-27 by the 15:16 mark of the second half. For the remainder of the game, Howland put the Bruins in their "prevent offense," where they chew up 30-35 seconds with each possession (and even a minute or more when they got an offensive rebound after a missed shot), which makes it impossible for a team to come back on them. The Bruins maintained their 20-point advantage until Howland decided to pull his main players and empty his bench at the 2:53 mark with the Bruins up 57-37. LSU outscored the Bruins 8-2 in garbage time to make the game seem closer than it actually was.
As I said above, this game was over before it began. Howland and his staff had obviously watched a lot of tape on LSU and noted where the Tigers had been blown out by Florida in a 16-point loss earmarked by Florida's fast paced attacking offense. That Howland was able to communicate this to his team and convert them into a transition-oriented ball club in a week is a testament to his genius as a coach. LSU was simply unprepared to face such an aggressive offense combined with the Bruins' usual tough defense and LSU completely fell apart early in this game. Individually, game honors go to Mbah A Moute, who not only got 17 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals, but was also the point man in defending Glen Davis one on one. Big Baby simply couldn't get a good shot off against Mbah A Moute, who used his quickness to force Davis into a series of wild spinning shots instead of backing the smaller Bruin down in the paint. Mata and Hollins also took their turns in harassing Davis into going 5-17 from the floor as he managed just 14 points and 7 rebounds. Hollins' length and Aboya's aggressive play also took Tyrus Thomas out of the game early, as the spectacular athlete only got 5 points and 6 rebounds for the game. Afflalo and Collison combined to hold Darrel Mitchell to 6 points and zero assists on 3-9 shooting from the field. The Bruins simply locked the Tigers up on defense while wearing them out with their fast-paced offense.
Farmar hit a pair of 3s en route to 12 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Afflalo had 9 points and 6 rebounds to go with his excellent individual defense on Mitchell. Collison had 6 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists, Hollins 6 points and 3 rebounds, Bozeman 4 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals, Roll scored 3 points and Mata got 2 points and 8 big rebounds to go with 2 blocks. Aboya also blocked 2 shots.
Overall, as a team, UCLA wound up shooting 41.2% from the field compared to 32% for the Tigers. The Bruins also outrebounded the bigger, more athletic LSU team 42-33. On the negative side, the Bruins did make 17 turnovers, compared to 15 for the Tigers. But even those turnovers, most of which came on transition plays, helped to wear the Tigers down both physically and psychologically. Don't let the final score fool you: This was a game of total domination of one team by another. Ben Howland prepared his team to unleash a firestorm against the unsuspecting Tigers, who cracked under the pressure.
The Bruins now face one more obstacle to winning their 12th national championship: A quick, athletic Florida team with a strong inside attack combined with excellent jump shooters. Florida will definitely present UCLA with a bigger challenge than LSU, because they have an outside attack to go with an inside attack and a deep bench to boot, so it will be interesting to see how Howland and his staff prepare their team to take on the Gators. The national media can go to hell. The Bruins are back where they belong and Monday night will give them an opportunity to show the entire country what UCLA Basketball is all about.