It was probably UCLA's best all-around game of the season to date but, what's most exciting, is that the Bruins can even play quite a bit better.
Once UCLA built its double-digit lead, which was about halfway through the first half, it never felt like Georgia Tech seriously contended to get back in it. The ESPN announcers so quickly conceded the game to UCLA that they often were talking about other things rather than the game itself.
The game, however, didn't start very promising. UCLA struggled in its first few possessions, taking desperate threes and missing them, looking like it was continuing its trend of missing threes that it had established in the semi-final against Kentucky.
But UCLA got on track, and it was great to see Mike Roll as the main catalyst to UCLA over-taking Georgia Tech and establishing the lead it never relinquished. UCLA was down 10-7 when Roll hit his first three-pointer. He then hit a mid-ranger, had a beautiful feed to Ryan Wright on the block and UCLA was up 18-13. He dished out another assist to Darren Collison for a three, and hit two more threes himself, one a back-breaking desperation heave with the shot clock about to run out. He then hit a runner from the baseline, and Roll had 13 points and UCLA had gone up by as many as 17 before ending the half ahead, 47-36.
Perhaps we did, in fact, jump on Mike Roll too quickly after the Kentucky game. He showed in this game why he's such a vital part to the team, not only because of his outside shooting, but his feel and great passing. He threw a nice lob over the top of the defense to Lorenzo Mata in the second half for a dunk.
Now, obviously, there were other Bruins scoring along with Roll. Arron Afflalo finished with a game-high 19 points, and probably had his best, most-efficient game so far. He had just one turnover, took care of the ball better, showed great poise, and has clearly proven that he's the heart of the team. When UCLA needs a pick-me-up, there's Afflalo, with his scowl, barreling to the basket determinedly on a break and getting a basket and a foul. We've maintained for the last two years that, yes, Ben Howland should get credit for emphasizing defense, but the program wouldn't have adopted it as much and made it their calling card unless Afflalo had been in Westwood and become its poster boy. His energy on defense has always been infectious, and the truly biggest question facing the program's future is how the defense will fare once Afflalo leaves the program.
Darren Collison had probably his third-best game of the tournament against Georgia Tech, but it was still good enough for him to secure the tournament MVP, which he deserved. He looked a bit fatigued, and understandably so, playing 96 of 120 point guard minutes. In that time he had 21 assists against 9 turnovers, averaged 13.6 points, and shot 44% from three. His three-pointers are taking on the role of being back-breakers for UCLA's offense. With the opposing defenders running around trying to keep Afflalo and Josh Shipp from getting open looks, his threes are killer, taking and making them at the most back-breaking of times in UCLA's first four games. His passing wasn't as sharp in this game as in the previous three, probably due to some fatigue, but also because Georgia Tech realized that when Collison penetrates he's going to dish, and the Jackets just waited patiently and stepped into the lane. Last year you might never have thought we'd be saying this, but Collison has to not dish as much but take the ball to the basket or pull up more to keep defenses honest. With all the hype heard about GT's point guard Javaris Crittenton, that's he's one of the best point guards in the country, you have to wonder when Collison clearly out-plays him, and is too quick for Crittenton to guard, what that then makes Collison.
With Afflalo being hailed by many as the best shooting guard in the country, and with how Collison established himself on the national stage of this tournament, UCLA now has a very compelling argument that it has the best backcourt in the country.
Among a great deal of potential NBA talent on the floor, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute easily looked among the most talented in the game. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds and is becoming UCLA's most unstoppable offensive player. When he catches the ball anywhere around the basket, he's just so big and long, and now so heady using his pump fakes and footwork, that there aren't going to be many who can stop him this season. With his added strength, his rebounding ability is even more phenomenal this year than last.
Josh Shipp had a good all-around game, even though the stats might not show it, finishing with 9 points and 4 assists. He played good defense at times, and unselfishly on the offensive side. On one possession, with UCLA needing a big basket to stem a little bit of a Georgia Tech run, he penetrated under control and kicked out to an open Afflalo for a three. That's the type of unselfishness that will make Shipp a better player this season, and is critical to UCLA being as good as it can be.
Even with so many getting credit for being very good in this game, you could easily make a case that, if Lorenzo Mata's free-throw shooting wasn't so screwed up, he would have been the MVP of the game for UCLA. He is turning into a relative monster around the basket in terms of rebounding and defense, finishing with 10 boards and shutting down GT's big men. When he goes up for a board, those big mitts clamp on it and he doesn't lose it. He was going up for rebounds commonly with a couple of Yellow Jackets on his back and he just brushed them off like, well, bugs. With Mata and Mbah a Moute cleaning the boards, UCLA won the rebounding battle against a very big and athletic GT frontline, 33-31. It's a testament to how hard Mata has worked, and also to buying into Howland's weight-lifting regimen, which has obviously paid off for Mata. It's too bad that Mata's free-throw shooting went into a complete funk on national television, shooting just 1 of 8 in this game, with an air ball and quite a few clanks. His free-throw shooting motion actually changed during the game, and the results were even worse. While Mata was never been a great free-throw shooter, he was never this bad, shooting 56% last season, and it's obvious it's now in his head. Right now, it's the most pronounced issue that needs to be addressed on this team since, the way Mata's playing, he's going to be at the line quite a bit and, at this rate, UCLA is losing probably 5-8 points a game as it is.
With so many Bruins having strong games, the inexperienced Jackets didn't have much of a chance. Down 11 at half, and looking like in the last few minutes of the first half that they could threaten the Bruins, Georgia Tech came out in the second half without much fire or conviction. Within four minutes, UCLA had stretched its lead to 58-40. In fact, GT scored just two points in the first five minutes of the second half, and just four points in the first 11 minutes of the half. UCLA controlled them with a very nice defensive effort to start the second half, which seemed to take any effort and energy Georgia Tech had after three days of the tournament out of them. With the always-hungry Bruins smelling blood, they clamped down and put away the Yellow Jackets in those first ten minutes, then coasted to the win.
UCLA secured the game in those ten minutes with an active defense that was switching quickly out of its post doubles and off screens and not allowing many open looks. It also did it on the offensive side; Howland clearly slowed down the game and made UCLA execute deep into every shot clock, eating the game clock and tiring out GT even more, forcing them to play defense for 35 seconds. It worked. GT's defense would break down, UCLA executed precisely and got easy shots to sustain the lead. Even when the Jackets made the inevitable mini-run to get them within 13 points with a few minutes left, the disciplined UCLA team didn't panic but again executed with precision on offense and got easy baskets. With just a few minutes left, with Georgia Tech down just 13 and really enough time to get the deficit under double digits, Collison calmly made 10 of 12 free throws and Shipp, wide open from three, knocked it down to go up 79-62.
Howland coached a great game, not only with a good game plan coming in, but with some very good coaching moves throughout the game that kept UCLA in control. He used his time-outs well, at moments when possibly the momentum was turning to Georgia Tech or UCLA needed a re-set offensively.
There was also a classic Howland moment in this game: He gets knocked to his rear when a Georgia Tech player takes him out on the bench and Howland pops up still talking to the refs and giving instructions to his players.
Remember, too, Howland had to closely manage Mata's minutes in the tournament due to the knee injury. Watching this game you would have wanted Mata to play just about every minute at the five, but he played just 30, with Howland shuttling in Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright for a total of 15 minutes.
Wright showed signs of getting it, too, looking like he's more relaxed on both the offensive and defensive end. Also off the bench, Russell Westbrook, again, in just six minutes of giving Collison a blow, had an impact. Being such a scorer in high school has made him aggressive as a point guard going to the basket.
Overall, you'd come away with an impression of UCLA in Maui as a very disciplined, sound team that uses many basic basketball fundamentals that seem to be getting lost in the college game. You see pump fakes, strong cuts, bumping screens, great man and team defense, and precision executing sets on offense with confidence while under control. You also see a lot of heart and effort. At one point the ESPN announcers were saying that UCLA simply wanted it more than Georgia Tech.
If anything, UCLA winning the Maui Invitational made it very clear that UCLA is going to be one of the best teams in the country, not only with talent that can probably stay on the floor with anyone but because the talent is so well-coached.
It was really a great way to start the season, and a great showcase for the program, the players and for Howland on a national stage. It reiterated to the country that UCLA's run to the championship game last season wasn't a fluke, and that there's a sign now posted on the front of Pauley Pavilion: Great Basketball Played Here.