It was a game that played out pretty much as expected: Both teams played tough defense, seemed to know what they other was going to do, and UCLA ultimately prevailed because it had better players.
As we've maintained all season, UCLA would only go as far as its defense would take it, and the defense has taken the Bruins to the Elite Eight. The defense was stellar Thursday, not allowing the Panthers many open looks, and with the ones that seemed open there was still a Bruin around to harass them just a bit. The Bruin D kept good energy through most of the game, didn't have let-ups, like it has been prone to do this season, and Pittsburgh visibly tired before the Bruins did. Aaron Gray, Pittsburgh's star center, looked like he was spent in the last ten minutes of the game, while Lorenzo Mata, who only played 26 minutes, was skying over him for rebounds – significant rebounds down the stretch that secured the win.
It's a testament to how effective good defense can be, and how well UCLA executes it. UCLA, a team without what you would call a great offense to begin with, is having to ride out a shooting slump by its #1 scorer, Arron Afflalo, the All-American who has carried them all season. Even with Afflalo unable to hit a shot beyond 10 feet for the last several games, UCLA is still winning. If Afflalo was shooting well, UCLA's lead would have been in double digits and very comfortable for most of the game. Afflalo, to his credit, is trying to manufacture points, posting up, going to the rim to draw a foul and go to the line, and he's doing it well. He still scored 17 points against Pitt, on 3-of-11 shooting. He hit one of five free three pointers, which needed a very lucky bounce off the front of the rim to go in. He did, however, go 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
Not only is it a testament to good defense that UCLA is winning without the benefit of its best scorer, it also beat Pitt without the benefit of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for half the game. Mbah a Moute played just 20 minutes, having to sit most of the first half when he picked up his second foul after just about 3 minutes gone in the game. That made UCLA have to go to its bench in the first half, to guys like Ryan Wright and James Keefe. While Mbah a Moute isn't a prolific scorer, he does have his scoring ability, and taking him off the court to replace him with Keefe is only further hurting a struggling offense.
But James Keefe came up big in his 10 minutes, all of them in the first half. He was very effective at doubling Gray in the post (at one point, when he doubled Gray tightly on the baseline and Gray threw the ball out of bounds as a result, UCLA assistant coach Kerry Keating pointed at Keefe and said, "That was you!"), played generally strong defense (he's very good on a hedge, being quick for a big man to recover), and did well in setting the screens that the offense needs to operate. Keefe also got the first dunk of his UCLA career (in a Sweet 16 game, no less), when Collison penetrated and dished off to him unguarded under the basket. Keefe looked a little surprised at having the ball in his hands at first, but went up quickly and threw it down well. And you have to give him credit for taking a wide-open three, which he has the green light to do from the coaches, showing great confidence.
While UCLA, of course, missed Mbah a Moute on the court, the fact he had to sit might have benefited them in the long run. It forced Howland to play his bench an unprecedented 37 minutes in the first half. Not only was it key that they did well, it was huge that it kept them far fresher in the second half, when Pitt was wearing down. Aboya played 19 minutes, 14 in the first half, Mike Roll had 10 minutes (6 in the first half), Ryan Wright had 3 minutes (and a block) and Russell Westbrook had 6 minutes, 4 of those coming in the first half. Westbrook, in his one basket, in the first half, after a scramble for the ball, you could see finally said "Screw this" and took the ball through the lane and scored easily on a strong lay-up.
Mata, as we said, down the stretch, won some rebounds that were critical. Even though the stats were pretty even in rebounding for most of the game, it did seem like Pitt was winning critical boards, especially on their offensive end. It's deflating for a team like UCLA, who plays tough D deep into the shot clock, expending a lot of energy, to then give up an offensive rebound and give the other team a second chance and a fresh clock. Pitt was doing that, and it was probably, really, the only aspect of the game where Pitt was beating out the Bruins. But Mata, being fresh down the stretch, had eight second-half rebounds. He and Alfred Aboya had beaten up Gray so much for the first 30 minutes that the 7-0, 270-pounder looked like he was saying no mas to Mata by the end. Mata also coolly swished (yes, swished) his two free throws.
The game isn't won, though, without Josh Shipp. There must be something in the stars that, when Josh Shipp goes cold shooting during the season, Afflalo is hot, and when Afflalo is cold, Shipp gets hot. Right now, Shipp is shooting the ball with great confidence and form. You can tell, by the way he catches the ball in rhythm, that he has his shooting touch. He nailed three big three-pointers, which all came during critical possessions in the game, to finish with 17 points. And really the aspect of this UCLA team that has been a huge force in getting it through three games of the NCAA tournament so far is that Shipp is playing very good defense. During the season, when Shipp looked slow afoot playing defense, everyone attributed to his lack of quickness. But in the tournament, Shipp has turned up his defense at least a notch. He was great defensively (yes, great) against Indiana, and very good against Pitt. Defense is mostly effort, and Shipp is now putting in the most effort he has on defense all season. He now has no more excuses when he doesn't play good defense during the non-conference schedule. And Shipp playing good defense is like a ripple effect for the team. When he can match up against Mike Cook, Pitt's most consistent outside scorer, and hold him to 7 points, it enables UCLA to put Afflalo on the quicker perimeter scorer (which will be critical against Kansas because of Brandon Rush). Shipp, too, is so loose on the court. He's smiling constantly, and you can see he's making little jokes to his teammates that keep them loose. In tense moments, it does seem to contribute to keeping the team in a good mind frame.
Collison was instrumental, playing some of his best perimeter defense in recent weeks, shutting down, for the most part, the Pitt perimeter players he matched up against. Collison also hit some big shots, and big free throws (going 6 for 6 from the line). He finished with 12 points and 4 assists.
Roll hit a big three in the first half, and then the game-clincher, a 12-foot from the baseline with just 53 seconds left, to put UCLA up 58-51. Pitt had made a bit of a run, to cut a 12-point deficit to five with a 1:30 remaining. Roll got the look after Collison penetrated (and it appeared had an open lane to the basket, actually), and kicked to him for the open baseline jumper.
UCLA's defense, though, gets credit for the victory. It held Pitt to 36% shooting, and its defense to built a solid lead in the second half. Pitt went over 7 minutes in the second half (from 17:0 to 10:32) without a field goal. With 4 minutes left in the game, Pitt had made only five baskets in the second half, which allowed UCLA to capitalize, building a 54-42 lead. UCLA is definitely riding its defense and while Afflalo is going through a cold spell shooting, it makes for some great possibilities. What if, say, Afflalo gets hot – to go along with a hot Shipp? What if UCLA is able to get more transition baskets (which it was completely unable to do against Pitt) against a team like Kansas that likes to run? What if Howland, now, can use his bench extensively in the first half to keep his starters fresh for the second half? Combine all of this with UCLA's defense, and it's not hard to imagine the Bruins playing in Atlanta April 2nd. Heck, even with just this defense, it's not hard to imagine.