It's a Day of D and Heart, 65-62

Today's fans might not have liked the game between #1 UCLA and #6 Texas A&M Saturday in the Wooden Classic, in which the Bruins won, 65-62, but for basketball purists, it was a defensive thing of beauty, which came down to two teams with heart and one wanting it slightly more...

Since we're not players or coaches, we can look past the next game.

With UCLA beating #6-ranked Texas A&M, 65-62, the Bruins should retain their #1 ranking for the entire month of December, at least.

Merry Christmas.

If it happens it will be the longest streak UCLA has held the #1 ranking during the regular season since 1973-1974, when John Wooden sat in the UCLA head coaching chair.

You know the program is in good hands when there are stats that start cropping up that are described as "...not since John Wooden...".

Yeah, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but we don't have to play them a game at the time.

And if UCLA continues to put in the type of intensity and desire it showed in its win against Texas A&M Saturday in the Wooden Classic, it has a very good chance of pulling it off.

After a few games against Big West opponents, the Bruins had its NCAA-tournament face back on. And it's a mother of a face.

There's really one reason why UCLA won this game: It wanted it more. And that's not to say that Texas A&M didn't want it. The Aggies are an admirable team, with good talent and heart. But, with Arron Afflalo leading UCLA, there is level of desire and heart lacing through the UCLA program that is incredibly uncommon.

UCLA got out-rebounded 34-23. Texas A&M shot 49% for the game. UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute finished with just 2 rebounds, and didn't have a board in the first half. Alfred Aboya got injured, his eye scratched, and sat out a huge portion of the second half while Bruin starting center Lorenzo Mata was in foul trouble.

And UCLA wins.

There are a few other reasons besides desire. The Bruins played pretty disciplined, only turning over the ball 13 times, and forced the Aggies into 20. UCLA's defense, despite allowing 49% from the floor, was good, often times forcing A&M into a shot clock violation or a desperate shot at the end of the clock. UCLA shot well from three, hitting 7 of 15.

But if you were in the arena, and could feel the game, you could, first, sense an NCAA-tournament-level environment. Both A&M and UCLA were focused and intense. But you could also see that UCLA, tempered by the run to the championship game last season, knowing what it takes and when you truly need to turn it on, had more of it.

It did, in fact, seem very much like one of UCLA's games from last season, not just in intensity, but in performance. UCLA's defense was good, and its offense was sputtering, and was unable to get any inside scoring. Everyone knows UCLA doesn't have a good inside scoring option, but so far this season the Bruins have been able to get easy inside baskets because of strong offensive execution creating openings in opposing defenses. Mata, Aboya, and Mbah a Moute have had the ball in their hands on the block very often in UCLA's first 7 games. Not in this one. Texas A&M's interior defense was phenomenal, not allowing UCLA to create any little bits of daylight in the paint through great switching and just pure strength. It was also a great job by the A&M coaching staff, to take away any easy UCLA baskets.

So, UCLA's offense, once again, became perimeter oriented. We'll see quite a few teams attempt to do it this season, but few will be able to accomplish it the way A&M did. UCLA was relegated to moving the ball around in its offense, with its perimeter players trying to find a seam or an open man underneath the basket, but the paint was blanketed. So, UCLA's outside shooting had to take over the offense and provide enough fire power to win, and it did. Josh Shipp hit two big threes among five attempts, and finished with a team-leading 18 points. He still took a couple of ill-advised drives to the basket (he almost automatically tries to drive the baseline, even if there are two defenders already there), but his defense was improved from the last week. Afflalo, who got hit with his second foul only 4 minutes into the game, played just 13 minutes total in the first half. He did have some big threes down the stretch in the second half. At about 10 minutes left in the game, A&M hit a three to draw to within two points, but Afflalo cooly caught a pass at the top of the key in rhythm and buried a three to regain UCLA's five-point lead. Afflalo, also, had a few other big buckets in the second half on mid-range pull-ups during those crunch-time possessions that were critical. He finished with 13 points in 28 minutes.

But it's time to give out the title of Best Three-Point Shooter to Darren Collison. We had said before that Collison's threes are daggers to opposing teams; defenses run around trying to limit the looks of Shipp and Afflalo and then Collison will hit threes. Collison does actually deserve the title of Best Three-Point Shooter, so far shooting 43% for the season. And never were the daggers more pronounced than against the Aggies. To end the half, Collison hit two successive three-pointers, the last one a desperation-type, 26-footer, to give UCLA a 33-27 lead and momentum going into the half. He then hit another big three at the beginning of the second half, to give UCLA a 42-33 lead, and it looked like UCLA might pull away.

But A&M hung in, and it truly became a competition of defense between the two teams. UCLA has earned a rep in the last two seasons as a very good defense team, and A&M is proving to be one of the best defensive teams in the country this year. It has quick guards who provide very good on-ball defense (in fact, among all the guards UCLA has gone up against so far this year, the Aggies' Acie Law is the best), and big, strong post players who are well-coached defensively. For basketball purists, it was a great thing to watch, literally a one-up challenge of defense with every trip down the court. Collison, at one point in one of those crunch-time possessions, was literally yelling at the A&M guard he was defending as he was quickly shuffling his feet, staying in front of him.

As Howland revealed in his post-game comments, Mbah a Moute had been nursing a groin injury this week. It wasn't necessarily evident, but he didn't have a good game offensively. He did, however, provide some strong defense on Texas A&M's interior players, banging with them in the paint and showing some very good physical play inside.

UCLA's bench provided important minutes. Michael Roll had 15 strong minutes, playing solid defense when UCLA needed him to with Afflalo in foul trouble, hitting one of his two three-point attempts (again, another one during the crunch-time possessions), and he was in the right place at the right time for three rebounds. Russell Westbrook had just six minutes on the floor, and you wouldn't understand it by just looking at the box score, since he didn't score, and had one turnover, but they were important six minutes. Collison played 36 minutes and Westbrook provided him four minutes of rest, and was able to do so with good defense. It was a good test for Westbrook, to see if he was capable of getting on the floor by playing good defense against a high-caliber opponent, and he was. Ryan Wright also gets credit for playing good interior defense and earning time on the floor himself. With Aboya hurt and Mata fouling out, Wright played the last four crunch-time minutes of the game, and was solid.

So, things are set up for the Bruins, and their fans, to have a very good December. While everyone is watching Sports Center during the holidays, they'll look over their egg nog to watch the news ticker and see "#1 UCLA" scroll by, and they'll start to get used to it.

Not since John Wooden...


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