It's a great game when you don't play particularly well, on the road, in a hostile environment, against a team that should be in the NCAA tournament that might have some match-up advantages against you and, somehow, you win.
That's pretty much the story in UCLA's win over USC Saturday, 65-64.
It's also pretty sweet that it's against your croswtown rival.
If you haven't already, watch the game on Tivo again. It's a very satisfying feeling to watch the USC fans celebrating, and hear the announcers chalk up the win to the Trojans with about 8 minutes left in the game, knowing that the Bruins ultimately win it.
It's definitely a sign that your team's pretty good when you can win such a game when you don't play really well. UCLA didn't, but it played well enough at critical times and took advantage of USC's untimely poor play (for them) to pull out the game.
Really, UCLA's big advantage over USC (and it has been since Ben Howland took over at UCLA) is that UCLA has smarter players that generally make good decisions while USC, who you could argue might have more talent, has some players that chronically make bad decisions.
But in this game, USC, to its credit, wasn't making enough of those types of bad decisions for UCLA to take advantage. In fact, not until deep into the second half of the game, when USC took some questionable shots (Lodrick Stewart catching a low pass in the corner and putting up a quick three with a UCLA defender in his face comes to mind), dopily leaving Darren Collison open for some wide-open threes, not blocking out on critical possessions and then missing three front ends was UCLA able to finally take advantage and pull ahead.
USC has become good because they've made less bad decisions and, of course, the 21-year old freshman post, Taj Gibson. Without Gibson, the Trojans would still be a bunch of guys running around on the perimeter taking ill-advised, off-balance shots. He truly is a difference-maker, particularly in this game with his defensive presence, blocking four shots and altering a number of other UCLA shots.
UCLA, however, had a good performance from its own big man, Lorenzo Mata. He played generally good defense on the tough-to-guard Gibson, most of the time with three fouls, and gave UCLA some much-needed inside scoring, ending with 12 points, being able to finish some nice inside dishes from his teammates. He was also critical on the boards, getting 8 big rebounds, and one particularly huge offensive rebound off a Collison miss, putting it back up to get UCLA up by 6, 63-57, with just 51 seconds remaining. To put it in perspective, Gibson had 9 points and 8 rebounds in 40 minutes, while Mata had 12 and 8 in just 19 minutes.
The two other big heroes of the game were Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. Afflalo scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, including the game winner, a 15-footer with 4 seconds left. He also hit three big threes that kept UCLA in the game early in the second half, and generally played strong defense.
Darren Collison didn't get the last-second game winner, but he's the clear MVP of this game. In the second half, USC looked like it could run away with the game, flirting with a 7-10 point win for most of the half, but it felt like they could, at any time, run it up to 17 to 18. USC was up 42-32 and it wasn't looking good, with UCLA's offense struggling and its big men racking up fouls. Collison then hit a big three, and then another when USC, dopily, left him wide open on lazy switches. He then converted two free throws after getting fouled on an aggressive drive down the lane. He did it again, and made one free throw. After a Russell Westbrook drive and dish to Alfred Aboya, Collison hit another three. He scored 12 of UCLA's 14 points over the course of five minutes, and kept UCLA within 5 points of the Trojans. He then followed that up with a dime to Westbrook for a three, and then a drive and dish to Mata, who converted a free throw. It was probably the best all-around offensive stretch of a UCLA player yet this season, with Collison not only scoring by shooting from the outside, but driving to the basket, drawing fouls and also creating for his teammates. Collison ended with a game-high 17 points.
Those were the three big performances of the game. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who had five points and seven rebounds, had perhaps the second-most critical play of the game behind Afflalo's game winner. With two minutes left in the game, and UCLA up by two, it needed a well-executed possession. UCLA ran the clock down well, then Mbah a Moute drove and made a nice wrap-around bounce pass to Mata who finished it under the basket. But Mbah a Moute, again, doesn't look the same physically. There are reports leaking out of UCLA that he's experiencing tendonitis in his knees, which is limiting his movement at times, but UCLA, to date, has been pretty mum about it.
Westbrook provided a strong 16 minutes, hitting a big three and driving to the basket fearlessly while also playing good on-the-ball defense. UCLA probably looked the best when he was on the court in the second half along with Collison and Afflalo. Alfred Aboya also gave UCLA a good 20 minutes, getting 8 rebounds and playing good D on Gibson. Because of Mata, Mbah a Moute and Aboya, and UCLA's wings crashing the boards, UCLA, amazingly out-rebounded USC, 37-30.
UCLA, generally, had a solid defensive game. It did allow USC to shoot 45% from the field, but it stepped up its defense in the second half when it needed to get stops. At this point, UCLA's biggest issue on defense is switching on screens, and it was very evident in this game. USC's open looks came when UCLA was slow on a switch off a screen.
UCLA's offense, again, struggled. It's plain and simple – the Bruins are going to have to get more offensive production from its post players. It does appear like it's looking to get the ball in the hands of its posts, particularly Mbah a Moute, with their back to the basket more, but still not enough. And in a game like this, when UCLA didn't get any points off transition, it desperately needs to get some points from some place other than perimeter shooting. It struggled even without USC playing zone, the Trojans playing its man defense for the entire game.
Again, when you analyze it, you have to say it's great to get a win when UCLA doesn't necessarily play well, on the road – against USC.
It makes you realize that this team is good, for many reasons other than just pure talent, like smarts, heart and defense. Now, if it can just get some inside scoring…