It wasn't a pretty win, perhaps the season's ugliest so far, but it got the job done. And even though UCLA didn't show a great deal of energy, it did show that, again, UCLA is good enough now that even when it's not showing great intensity or focus, and is faced with a team using a deliberate style to throw the Bruins out of sync, they can still win handily.
Riverside hadn't previously played a slow-down style this season, but they unveiled it Sunday. It was probably a good idea, the Highlanders recognizing that they wouldn't have a chance to win if they ran with the Bruins and the score was in the 90s. Slowing it down, using all of the shot clock, possibly hanging around while you put UCLA – and its fans – to sleep, was a smart move.
It did indeed keep Riverside generally within 15 points for most of the game. You never really though that Riverside would make a run to draw much closer or seriously threaten the Bruins, but it was at least an effective game plan in giving Riverside a chance.
It played right into the fact that the UCLA team didn't have much intensity and neither did the Bruin crowd, probably still a bit stunned by the UCLA football team's win over USC the day before. So, as Riverside didn't push and then passed the ball around the halfcourt deep into the shot clock, it practically was like a hypnotist dangling a pocket watch back and forth.
UCLA was held to 61 points, when it had previously been averaging just about 84 points per game. The slow-down game definitely limited UCLA's touches, but it also affected their performance. First, Riverside conceded just about every offensive rebound to get back on defense and not allow UCLA many baskets in transition. Then UCLA didn't shoot the ball well from three, with Riverside switching between a man and a zone and the general slow-down tempo seemingly not allowing UCLA to get in a rhythm offensively. On defense, Riverside crashed the boards, not allowing UCLA many offensive rebounds, and the Bruins went one-shot-and-out many times after having to work to get a shot off against Riverside's zone.
To its credit, Riverside played hard and had good energy, especially on defense. With about 10 minutes left in the second half, Riverside's persistent defense had consistently nagged UCLA into some bad possessions, and the Highlanders drew within 13 at 38-25. This was after UCLA came out to begin the first half with three turnovers that seemed to keep the tone of the game intact.
Probably a great deal of credit for keeping the game out of reach was due a bit to the energy of UCLA's bench. Alfred Aboya, always active on defense, bodied up on the Riverside post player in one possession and forced him to fumble the ball out of bounds. This came right after UCLA had started the half with four bad possessions, and it put a little life into UCLA. Arron Afflalo then hit his first three of the night (UCLA had actually not hit a three in the first half), and Josh Shipp hit a three ball a few minutes later. James Keefe also provided a spark off the bench, getting a big offensive rebound that led to a nice turnaround jumper. Aboya had five points and three rebounds in 14 minutes, and Keefe had three points and four rebounds in just 11 minutes.
Lorenzo Mata, also, played well, displaying good post defense, which wasn't necessarily hard since Riverside's posts were under-sized. He got a career-high four blocked shots to go with 10 points and seven rebounds, which included a nice, fluid left-handed jump hook from about 12 feet. He also hit two of three from the foul line, with his foul-shot motion looking improved.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had a double-double, with 12 points and 12 rebounds, which seemed fairly routine, as double-doubles go.
Luc had one sequence in the first half where he missed a couple of shots and got his own rebounds before converting, but despite that, there weren't many offensive rebounds for UCLA until about mid-way through the second half. As soon as UCLA got a few second chances offensively then it started to expand its lead.
Afflalo had a solid game, finishing with a game-high 13 points, and a couple of nice assists. He was too big and physical for his Riverside defender, and he took him inside with a couple of post-ups and under-control pull-ups that he converted.
Shipp had a few moments where he played a bit sloppily, particularly in one transition where he attempted a behind-the-back pass that landed in the hands of two Riverside players. He finished with 10 points, and made just one of four from three.
It might be paranoia, but perhaps something to worry about is the potential fatigue of Darren Collison. At times so far this season, he's looked tired, and it's understandable when he's playing 30 minutes and providing such great defensive intensity. He looked a bit tired in this game, not challenging or penetrating on offense, and not looking for his shot either, while also slightly sloppier with the ball. He looked more like the tentative Collison we saw in the exhibition games than in Maui, and hopefully it's not a result of fatigue. If you were looking at UCLA's schedule, you would have thought that the Riverside game would be a chance for UCLA to get its starters, particularly Collison some rest, but his back-up, Russell Westbrook, didn't see much action. Westbrook did have a nice drive and flush in the waning moments of the second half, but he didn't really impact the game much. In the first half, he got just a few minutes, since Ben Howland quickly put Collison back in after Riverside converted a couple of possessions and were keeping it too close.
It was good to see that UCLA's defense was, still, more or less, intact and not completely put to sleep. The Bruins held Riverside to 30% shooting for the game, and not one Highlander reached double figures.
This game, perhaps, provided UCLA's future opponents a theory on how to possibly play against UCLA. If you had more talent than Riverside did, playing the slow-down, use-the-entire-shot-clock approach could work. Luckily there aren't many teams on UCLA's schedule that play this deliberate style: perhaps Washington State (even though they've picked up their tempo now with Tony Bennett taking over the head coaching duties from his father), or the new Arizona State, that runs a disciplined and deliberate Princeton-style offense under new coach Herb Sendek. I would bet this is exactly what you'll see from the Sun Devils when they face UCLA.
You certainly won't see it from UCLA's next opponent, Cal State Fullerton, which pushes and runs, when the consensus #1 Bruins take on the Titans Tuesday.