UCLA beat Arizona, 81-66, in Tucson, for the fifth time in a row, sweeping them for two consecutive years. I think it's pretty cut-and-dry which is the Pac-10 program standard.
Lute Olson, when interviewed by an Arizona paper this week, said he hopes UCLA continues to play the way it does, emphasizing defense and a half-court offense, so he can sell his recruits his run-and-gun style of play.
We, too, hope it continues.
It was a significant win for the Bruins, keeping them a game ahead of Washington State for the conference lead, and in heavy contention for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It was a significant loss for Arizona, further emphasizing the shift in conference power.
All in all, it was a very well-played game. At least, for most of the game. UCLA played a good game, and Arizona played a good game, for about 30 minutes. UCLA shot 52%, and Arizona 45%. Arizona out-rebounded the Bruins, 27-26. There were only 18 turnovers between the two teams (UCLA 7, Arizona 11).
It ranks as one of UCLA's best games of the year. It's a testament to how good UCLA can be when Josh Shipp is effective, and he certainly was.
When Shipp took that first open three attempt, he looked tentative, and it wasn't a good sign. You then thought Shipp was going to continue his slump. But Shipp persevered, and not only hit the later open looks he had, but had some excellent assists. Even considering the jumpers he made, probably his best play of the day was when, with UCLA clinging to a ten-point lead with a few minutes left, Shipp penetrated, under control, and dished to Mike Roll, who buried his second three, to put UCLA up by 13 with under 3 minutes remaining. You might not have noticed, but Shipp pumped his fists in celebration after that – after an assist. That was probably the most heart-warming image of UCLA's 2006-2007 season so far. Shipp finished with a game-high 24 points, and they were almost all not forced and within the flow of the offense.
Darren Collison, however, had to be co-MVP of the game. He was truly spectacular, finishing with an amazing stat line of 17 points, 15 assists, and four rebounds with just 2 turnovers. He had 12 assists in the first half, with great vision, dishing right and left as UCLA got out in transition and jumped out to a nice lead. While Shipp's best play was probably an assist, Collison's best player, however, could be a three-pointer he hit from downtown with the shot clock buzzing to put UCLA up 60-50 with seven minutes left. It was one of his signature dagger threes, the kind that really drives a stake into the heart of an opponent, which he's done so many times this season. His game was really a thing of beauty. His 15 assists were a career record and tied a UCLA record set by Earl Watson.
The other guy who is good at the dagger threes is Arron Afflalo, who had a couple in this game himself, allowing him to finish with 15 points. There were a number of times when UCLA was struggling against Arizona's zone, unable to get a good look, and Collison and Afflalo were forced to put up a desperation three as the shot clock was expiring. And they calmly made many of them. Collison was five of seven and Afflalo was three of ten from three. UCLA altogether was 13 of 28 (46%). Afflalo also led the defensive effort, frustrating any Arizona player he faced.
Lorenzo Mata was a force. Not only is he becoming a decent low-post scoring threat, but his shot-blocking ability and defense was truly a difference-maker in this game. He had 10 points, 7 rebounds and three blocks in just 22 minutes. He also was responsible for a few of the most significant sequences of the game, particularly making two free throws at about the 10-minute mark of the second half to put UCLA up by 9.
UCLA's defensive effort was improved and good, if a bit uneven. They looked like they'd get wound up a bit at times, but then Head Coach Ben Howland called a couple of key timeouts to get them calmed down and the defense re-set, and it really had an impact.
Because of this, it was a game of runs for the first 30 minutes or so. UCLA would make a run, go up by about 13, and then Arizona would make a run and bring it close. Most of it was predicated on UCLA's defensive intensity ebbing and flowing. Then UCLA clamped down defensively about halfway through the second half, and Arizona looked like they had run out of gas. But UCLA couldn't take advantage, unable to convert on the offensive end while they were keeping Arizona scoreless for just about four minutes. UCLA, however, could only build the lead from 52-48 to 57-48.
Luckily, though, Arizona's undisciplined style, in most instances, will make the difference in the game. Their offense really has very few sets, and utilizes very few screens, and as they get more desperate in a game where they're losing, they begin to go one-on-one more often. UCLA, a team with very good on-ball defense, relishes that. The Bruins started to get stops and create turnovers.
In fact, there were a few junctures in the game, a couple in the first half, and a few down the stretch in the second half, that if UCLA had in fact made some open looks they would have built a 20-point+ lead and blown out the Wildcats.
UCLA struggled at times against Arizona's zone, almost, again, looking bewildered when faced with it. Arizona had been playing more man recently, but UCLA had to expect the Wildcats would zone, didn't they? The fact that UCLA looked bewildered against it was as much as a mystery as Arizona actually not utilizing the zone more often, going back to its very poor man D that UCLA cut up pretty easily. It took UCLA a while to get its zone offense in sync, but it then started attacking it. Again, it created a few open shots against the zone and if it had converted them the game would have been over halfway through the second half.
It's really a topsy-turvy world when easily the more difficult opponent for the weekend was Arizona State rather than Arizona. It's a testament to the impact that coaching can make. ASU doesn't have much talent, while Arizona has McDonald's All-Americans, yet Arizona State was a far tougher out.
It also helps significantly when you have a point guard, shooting guard and your small forward being so effective offensively. Having that other offensive option opens up UCLA's ability to score. We were panicking a little Friday in the wake of UCLA's hiccup against Arizona State and Shipp's continued slump. Howland has continued to have faith in Shipp, even probably when it wasn't warranted, and it definitely paid off against Arizona, in one of the most critical, signature games of the season. Hopefully Shipp has gotten rid of his hiccups.