Next to a blow-out, there's nothing worse than totally dominating a team, building a sizeable lead – raising expectation for the win – and then collapsing.
That's what happened Sunday night at Maples, when UCLA lost to Stanford, 75-68.
It was especially exasperating since it teased you into believing that UCLA had really come into its own. It had a recent history of slow starts, and it came out of the game this time on fire. Arron Afflalo, its star guard, had always seemed to have some great second halves, but hadn't been able to put together two halves in the same game. In this one, he was spectacular in the first half, scoring 17 points. The Bruins, overall, were playing their butts off, their defense was stifling, causing turnovers and easy transition points.
You thought that UCLA had matured, and really put together an effort worthy of a #2 ranking in the country.
Then the collapse.
As is the case with everything, it was a combination of things. UCLA got tentative, their intensity on defense deflated, they made bad decisions on offense, Afflalo disappeared and yes, you have to attribute some of it to the officiating.
I don't recall that I've ever cited officiating as a major factor in a game in these reviews. There probably have been times when it has been, but most of the time you have to take it as another aspect of the game that you can't control and need to adapt to. And most of the time officiating doesn't necessarily affect the outcome of a game.
Not this time. This time it did affect the outcome. And why it probably impacted the game was how the officiating seemed to change as the game wore on. UCLA played aggressively and physically on defense, but the refs were letting them play in the first 15 minutes. Then, the calls started coming, especially in the second half. What the Bruins were used to doing was suddenly getting a whistle. I'll even concede that the officiating wasn't even between the teams, that Stanford was committing fouls that the officials weren't calling (Stanford had 33 free-throws attempts, while UCLA had 15). But that, even, wasn't the biggest lapse in officiating that contributed to the outcome; it was the inconsistency between the beginning of the game and the rest of the game. If you're going to establish your limits, as an official, early in the game, it's really imperative that you stay consistent with those limits throughout the game. It definitely seemed that what UCLA had done in the first 15 minutes that didn't generate a call got a whistle in the second half.
It seemed to certainly contribute to UCLA going very tentative. And understandably. When you played with a certain style and aggressiveness and weren't called for a foul, and then suddenly you are, it leaves you confused.
So, officiating definitely was a factor.
Bu a championship-caliber team should be able to quickly adapt. And UCLA didn't.
Perhaps this game will prove as a big learning experience for this team, and it will help to mold them into that championship-caliber team later in the season.
I watched the tape of the games a couple of times, and I really can't distinguish that Stanford did much different in the second half. UCLA's collapse, mostly, seemed to come from a combination of the shift in officiating style, and UCLA losing all of that great defensive energy in had in the first 15 minutes. During that first 15 minutes, I was actually worried that UCLA was playing so hard and expending so much energy that they'd burn themselves out in the second half. And that definitely was a contributing factor. UCLA looked liked two different teams defensively if you compare them in the first 15 minutes of the game and then in the second half. On one hand, you think that the players should be able to sustain the intensity for an entire game, On the other hand, you have to concede that these are 20-year-olds and emotion is a huge, unwieldy factor.
But the way UCLA played in those first 15 minutes was just too good, holding a 37-20 lead with two minutes to go in the first half, and then the collapse made this one of the most frustrating games of recent years. They were executing on offense with a good game plan, they were playing a very intense D, and Afflalo was on another level. The Bruins would chalk up a big conference victory on the road, take a two-game lead in the conference, and visions of a walk through the second-half of the schedule, a dominating performance in the conference tournament and a #1 NCAA seed were dancing through the heads of UCLA fans.
But then the dream went poof. It is curious why Afflalo can have such an almost bizarrely great half but disappear in the second (he ended with 22 points but you kept wondering if he was on the court in the second half). You could see UCLA lose its confidence in so many aspects. It forced 8 first-half Stanford turnovers into 17 points, by flawlessly converting them in transition. Then, in the second half, UCLA blew some easy transition opportunities, one where they had a four-on-one and over-passed. It was a sign that maybe the wheels were going to come off. UCLA's perimeter defenders lost the intensity they had in the first half, and Stanford's two big outside scorers, Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill combined for 42 points, going six for ten from three. There were a number of bad decisions, with Darren Collison probably leading the way in the category. When he didn't play for the last shot of the first half, and shot the ball and missed with 13 seconds left, Stanford bench player Kenny Brown came down the court and made a prayer three-pointer, which cut UCLA's lead to 12. It was a huge emotional shift – from being up 17 just a couple of minutes ago with everyone in the building thinking that this game was on its way to a blow-out and the lead should actually be 20+, to the Cardinal down by just 12 at the break.
When Stanford made a basket in its first possession of the second half, you were astonished how fast this had become a game, with Stanford down just 10. From there on out, you could feel the break down was on its way, with all of the factors laid out above giving Stanford a slight edge in every possession before taking its first lead of the game with about 7 minutes left.
It was a bizarre game. But college sports can be often. While we watch these kids play and invest so much into them, we forget that they are, in fact, kids, not pros, and we forget to factor in their emotional state. Maybe one explanation for Afflalo's vastly different play in the first and second halves is how much of the emotional burden of this team he does shoulder as its leader (Also, Afflalo was expending so much energy on the defensive end, guarding both Goods and Hill, at such a high intensity level, he was bound to get fatigued). But for whatever reason, UCLA was a vastly different team in terms of emotion and intensity in the second half. IF UCLA is to be successful for the rest of the season, recognizing and managing the team's potential for an emotional rollercoaster ride is going to be crucial. Head Coach Ben Howland facetiously said in a press conference recently that he was the psychologist to the team, and he might actually need some therapy sessions.
The Bruins are now tied for the Pac-10 conference lead with Oregon, but you feel at this point the rest of the season could go just about any direction. That vision of a Pac-10 championship and a #1 seed are still very reasonable, but it's not going to be the relative cake-walk you were envisioning when UCLA was up 17 on the Cardinal in the first half. After this game, you have faith that UCLA will come out against Oregon on Thursday in Pauley Pavilion and have its intensity and confidence back but, you have to admit, you're not sure.