UCLA Again Wears Down Foe

If you're a Bruin fan looking for a blow-out, this might not be your team. But if you appreciate a team that can wear down opponents with its physical play and execution, this is your cup of tea. UCLA did just that against the Cardinal Saturday, with an ever-improving offense...

With UCLA beating Stanford, 75-61, Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, there were a few noteworthy aspects of the game to acknowledge.

-- The Bruins clinched at least a tie for the Pac-10 Championship. With two conference games remaining, UCLA holds a two-game lead over Washington State.

-- UCLA clinched a #1 seed in the Pac-10 tournament, with Oregon beating Washington. If UCLA did, in fact, end up tied with Washington State, UCLA would now win any subsequent tie-breaker.

-- UCLA, for the first time since the 1975-1976 season, went undefeated at home. Think about that. For so many years, UCLA was setting dubious records (biggest margin of defeat, ending NCAA record for consecutive winning seasons, etc.). How long has it been since this program reached a milestone that actually goes back to the Wooden era?

-- Fittingly, the 1967 championship team, featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, of course, John Wooden, were honored at halftime.

-- The #1 recruit in the country for the class of 2008, Renardo Sidney, attended his first UCLA game.

-- It was a day of trying to read the body language of Arron Afflalo, trying to discern whether he was acting like this was his last game in Pauley Pavilion or not.

And UCLA, once again, played to its modus operandi, starting out slow, then, by the second half, wearing down an opponent and over-taking them.

Many times UCLA has started out games this way because it started flat or with a lack of intensity. Saturday against Stanford, the Bruins looked like they started the game with their business faces on, but things just happened that kept the game intially close. There weren't many defensive lapses, but Stanford stayed close in the first half because, again, a team shot well against the Bruins in the first 20 minutes, some lucky Cardinal bounces of the ball, and some poor officiating.

UCLA went into the halftime break up 36-33, with Stanford shooting 50% and out-rebounding the Bruins, 19-17. But again, the Cardinal didn't post that 50% shooting number because UCLA was, as it has been before, slow-footed defensively in the first half. The Bruins actually had decent defensive intensity.

It also helped that Stanford had a player that is now, just about every game, making a statement that he belongs in the NBA – sooner than later. Brook Lopez is probably the best NBA prospect UCLA has faced this season, and he was phenomenal Saturday. With UCLA doubling him very effectively, and putting bodies on him in block outs, Lopez still had a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds. He scored over some tough double-teams, made some tough shots on naturally good post moves, and was really just about the only thing keeping UCLA to a single-digit lead for most of the game.

If he comes back for his sophomore year, Stanford is automatically a top 15 team next season.

UCLA, though, in its deliberate style, wore down the Cardinal, and reached a ten-point lead for the first time in the game with about 15 minutes left in the second half. UCLA built a comfortable double-digit lead on a run led by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The sophomore forward scored 9 points in a row, in a dominatingly easy fashion, to put UCLA up 50-40. Mbah a Moute is, as we've stated in the past, a walking mis-match, too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards to guard. In this case, he had Robin Lopez, the other 7-foot twin, guarding him, and UCLA effectively gave Mbah a Moute the ball with some room to work, and he took advantage of it. He drove on Lopez twice for easy baskets, even with Lopez sagging off him, not honoring his shot. Since Lopez wouldn't come out and guard him, Mbah a Moute then took his time and rattled home a three. Then, on a turnover and a break. Mbah a Moute threw down an emphatic two-handed dunk that signified the Cardinal had gone the way of so many other UCLA opponents this season – getting worn down and eventually beaten into the ground.

Mbah a Moute finished with 11 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 blocked shot. The flashes of such dominating offense are really encouraging, especially going into the post-season. Even if you take away the three-pointer, Mbah a Moute being aggressive offensively is a great sign. Head Coach Ben Howland said in the post-game interview that they always try to get the ball to Mbah a Moute in isolation, but he needs to be more aggressive in taking advantage of it.

It was especially good that UCLA got double digits in scoring from Mbah a Moute, when its #2 offensive option for much of the season, point guard Darren Collison, had a second poor game in a row. He was spectacular against Arizona last Saturday, and now has followed that up with his worst two-game stretch of the season against Cal and Stanford. Collison ended with 10 points and six assists, against just 2 turnovers, which is a decent stat line, but in the first half, he was out-of-sync offensively, and had tunnel vision in finding open shooters. There were a few times when Arron Afflalo or Mike Roll were wide open for a three in transition and Collison, who doesn't seem to have great peripheral vision, didn't see them, and they showed some obvious frustration. Howland pulled Collison out of the game a number of times to talk to him on the sidelines, mostly about driving inside against the Lopezes instead of pulling up for a mid-range, and it didn't appear that Collison was too happy about it. Collson, also, hasn't hit a three-pointer since making five against Arizona, missing one attempt in the Cal game and one in the Stanford game. Shooting 50% from three for the season, his three-point shooting has become a major weapon in UCLA's offense, and you don't want to think about it if his outside shooting went cold in the post-season.

Josh Shipp also, after having two excellent games in a row, had a mediocre one Saturday. He got into early foul trouble, and only played 25 minutes, and finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. The thing to watch, however, with Shipp, as an indication that he is the Slumping Shipp, is his defense, passing and decision-making. Even though he didn't play well against Stanford, he certainly didn't play like the Slumping Shipp either. He had decent intensity on defense, he passed the ball very well, and didn't make many bad decisions. He only had one ill-advised drive into the lane, which actually looked like he was clearly fouled and didn't get the call.

Arron Afflalo led UCLA with 20 points, along with 6 rebounds. Afflalo had a typical game for him, doing fine defensive work on the opposing team's best perimeter offensive threat, Lawrence Hill (he held Hill to 13 points), while also making some big shots. Afflalo came out of the second half to make a big three for the Bruins, which established, once again, that their second-half focus would be there, giving UCLA a six-point lead. He then finished off the game-winning run by hitting another three with about 5 minutes left to give UCLA a 68-55 lead.

As we said above, it was tough to infer from Afflalo's body language if this was his last game in Pauley Pavilion. It would have been nice, however, with UCLA up by 15 with a couple of minutes left, to bring Afflalo off the court so the fans could acknowledge him. But, if that had happened then the paranoid BRO fans would have taken from it that he was definitely leaving for the pros after the season. Afflalo should have had a send-off because, if that was his last game, he greatly deserves it. With his toughness and heart, he'll be remembered as much as Howland as the person who restored UCLA basketball (and even moreso if he returns for his senior year).

Russell Westbrook, the freshman guard, had a strong 7 minutes. With Collison struggling in the first half, Westbrook, again (like Thursday), came in and executed the offense better. When he penetrated into the lane in the first-half, his pull-up is so quick and so automatic, it's the best of its kind on the team. He then hit a big three-pointer in rhythm in the second half to help fuel the Mbah a Moute-led run. His defensive intensity is always a boost, and for a while, he played alongside Collison, which gives UCLA some very impressive quickness in its backcourt.

Mike Roll played 18 minutes and hit two significant, timely threes. His best play was a drive to the basket and a bounce pass through two collapsing defenders to Lorenzo Mata for a lay-up. Both Mata and Mbah a Moute were there for the pass, and were almost surprised by it since it was so good.

It really is a great time for Mata to be stepping up and playing consistently well. He has, now, become a low-post scoring threat, which really gives UCLA's offense some dimension. At the very least, it pulls defenses in and creates more space for UCLA's shooters. Probably the most interesting moment of the game was when Mata was fouled, but was scratched in the eye and couldn't shoot his free throws. Josh Shipp shot them for him and missed one, and you heard a chant from the Pauley crowd of "We Want Mata."

Alfred Aboya, too, as is his M.O., had a few critical plays. Down the stretch, he had two big rebounds, and always seems to be the guy who physically is still beating up opponents late in the second half when they are ready to roll over.

UCLA continued to show some improvements in this game, particularly in its offensive execution. If you might have noticed, in the last two games against Cal and Stanford, the Bruins are getting an amazing amount of lay-ups and dunks. They are taking very few outside shots, comparatively to just a few weeks ago. It's mostly due to very good offensive execution, with UCLA setting so many screens to get shooters open or rolling off of them to the basket. While you sometimes read about how UCLA's offense is methodical – any team in college basketball should relish having such a "methodical," well-executed offense. It's also a big reason why UCLA tends to wear down teams by the second half, getting opponents to play defense for an entire game through UCLA's physical screens and highly-executed offense that goes many times deep into the shot clock.

So, it was a day of milestones. And maybe a day where UCLA fans should just come to terms with the kind of team it has – one that isn't necessarily going to blow you out from the initial jump ball, but wear you down with its tough defense and well-executed offense. At this point, there aren't too many other teams in the nation I'd take over the Bruins and their winning style.

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