Under Head Coach Ben Howland, the Bruins are now advancing to their second straight Final Four.
UCLA needed to play its best game of the season to beat #1-seeded and highly-talented Kansas, and it did just that Saturday, 68-55, to win the West Region and move on to Atlanta.
It was a highly entertaining game, with some great one-on-one match-ups, great performances, stellar defense, toughness, and great energy in the building.
Right from the tip-off, you could feel a completely different energy than in any UCLA game yet this year.
And as soon as you saw Kansas play in the first initial minutes, it was clear UCLA hadn't played a team this good, or athletic, yet this season.
We knew they were like this, but you never quite know just how athletic someone is until UCLA actually gets on the court with them. In the first few minutes, it was pretty clear UCLA was up against it. Kansas was quick enough to stay with UCLA's guards, and its frontcourt was swatting shots or intimidating drives to the basket. It, actually, felt a little bit like last year's championship game against Florida in the first 15 minutes, with UCLA seemingly over-matched athletically.
The Bruins found themselves down 27-21 at the 6-minute mark in the first half, and it felt more like it was UCLA merely stemming the tide against the talented Jayhawks.
But something critical happened in those last six minutes of the first half. No matter how good Kansas was, or how athletic, or how it seemed UCLA was no match for it, UCLA proved that Kansas was no match in terms of toughness, intensity, desire, playing as a team, and coaching While Kansas's intensity let up, UCLA picked it up – on defense, first, of course. Kansas went into an offensive drought, as a result of an intensity lull and UCLA kept up its intensity, and suddenly the playing field evened up. The Bruins went on a 14-4 run to end the half, and it was really what set the tone for the rest of the game and gave UCLA its edge.
It's called Championship Time. And UCLA was right there for it, while Kansas wasn't. You could see it in the eyes of the players – UCLA wanted it more.
The entire feel of the game changed. Kansas's athleticism didn't appear as dominant. UCLA's experience and savvy started to be the dominant factor.
And if there's a player in the nation who was meant to lead such a charge, it's Arron Afflalo. The consummate warrior and team player, Afflalo had been going through a slump as of late, and UCLA had still advanced to the Regional Final. It was pretty clear, however, that Afflalo would have to pull out of the mini-slump if UCLA hoped to advance past Kansas.
He definitely did. He finished with 24 points, and came up big when UCLA needed it the most. He found his shot, at the most opportune time, going 10-for-15 for the game, and 3-for-7 from three. He had hit big shots at the end of shot clocks all season, and he did it again against KU, in critical possessions in the second half.
It was storybook. The kid who everyone has to love, with great heart and competitiveness, who embodies what UCLA athletics should always be about, comes out of his slump to be the hero.
As is typical of a hero, Afflalo was the leader of the last six minutes of the first half. He hit a nice pull-up to put the Bruins up 30-29. UCLA's defense then keyed a fast break on the other end and a lay-up by Afflalo, 32-29. KU's Brandon Rush floated for a big dunk, to make it 32-31. With 22 seconds left, Afflalo, the Master of the Universe Saturday, took the ball at the top of the key, ran down the clock, penetrated and dished to Josh Shipp in the corner and Shipp nailed a three, to send UCLA into halftime up 35-31.
It was a key sequence. Not only to put UCLA up by its biggest lead yet in the game going into halftime, and demoralize Kansas, but it set a tone, and sent a message about Afflalo and his UCLA team: It's not about him getting the last shot and the glory, it's about him unselfishly getting the right shot for his team – and the glory. That kind of play has such an impact, especially on teammates, making them realize that their leader is about winning first.
It was what set apart UCLA in this game from Kansas. KU is a team of McDonald's All-American and lottery picks. But Kansas plays individually – their offense is even oriented to take advantage of players' one-on-one skills primarily. They probably, by position, are better and more athletic players than those of UCLA. But UCLA was clearly the better team in this game and the second half was a showcase for the contrast in the teams.
And, again, it was time for Afflalo. He scored 14 of UCLA's first 18 points of the second half, and UCLA built a 55-44 lead. From six minutes left in the first half to about 11 minutes left in the second half, UCLA went on a 25-9 run, led by Afflalo and UCLA's team defense. That's 15 minutes and KU, a high-flying, high-scoring, get-out-on-the-break-and-slam-it type of team, scored just 9 points. UCLA's D consistently disrupted Kansas's offense, allowing very few open looks, creating turnovers, and harassing KU enough to miss shots.
Down the stretch, it was a matter of KU's intensity ebbing and flowing, and UCLA maintaining its high level. UCLA's defense didn't let up, and as KU typically does, it broke down into too much one-on-one in the last ten minutes of the game, and UCLA's defense made them turn the ball over. When Kansas attempted to mount a comeback, and it had to produce in its halfcourt offense, it spread it out and rotated the ball off high screens, but UCLA's defense hedged and ran around the screens well, and rotated quickly, not giving Kansas too many open shots as a result. The Jayhawks shot 41% for the game, and, with their over-dribbling and slashing, UCLA knew to reach and tap away the ball on drives by Kansas. KU committed 21 turnovers and five in the last few minutes when they were trying to pull out the game.
It was a testament to how a team that plays as a team, with heart, toughness and intensity, can beat a team of many McDonald's All-Americans. Howland out-coached Self up and down the court, with great preparation and great in-game adjustments. He recognized that the double-team of a screen wasn't working, that KU's guards were passing out of it well, so he went to the hedge, which was a critical element in UCLA's defensive surge.
You could say UCLA got a few lucky bounces, too -- the buzzer-beater shots, the missed KU lay-ups, etc. But it wasn't enough that it made the significant difference in the game. UCLA created the difference.
Collison was huge, being very smart beyond his sophomore year, in tolerating KU's pressure at the end of the game, and hitting huge shots. Not only was the buzzer-beater three big at about 4:40 left in the game to put UCLA up 58-50, but hitting four of four free throws in the waning minutes was probably as key. He finished with 14 points.
Shipp was a bit overwhelmed athletically against KU, but he continued to play with great effort, and he hit 2 of 4 threes, and played smart on defense. He had four steals, and has now channeled his craftiness to being the best help defender on the team.
As it has happened many times this season, Mike Roll's big three-pointer jump-started the offensive surge late in the second half. He also played good, smart defense.
Luc Richard a Moute had moments, as did Alfred Aboya. Mbah a Moute had 8 points and 6 rebounds, and scored off a nice baseline move and another baseline jumper. Aboya had 4 points and 6 rebounds. Lorenzo Mata played just 18 minutes, with Howland choosing to match up Aboya against Darrell Arthur instead of Mata, as we speculated he would in the preview. Aboya's combination of strength and athleticism was enough to limit Arthur and Julian Wright, with Wright getting just 8 points and Arthur 4.
As it has also happened many times this season, Russell Westbrook made such a huge impact – in just five minutes of playing time. In the first half, he stepped in front of a KU pass for a steal and dunk. In the second half, coming in for maybe a minute or so, he drove the basket and scored to give UCLA its biggest lead at the time, 44-35. While there was an element of UCLA being a bit intimidated by KU's athleticism, fearless Westbrook certainly wasn't.
|Bruins celebrate second-straight Final Four.|
The game, because of its overall intensity, was sloppy, with a total of 45 turnovers. But the turnovers didn't mar the beauty of it. With KU's talent and UCLA's savvy, and in such a vibrant atmosphere, this was college basketball being played at its highest level.
But the West was won, not by the team with the superior talent and athleticism, but by the one with the better coaching and the savvier, tougher players. Once again, UCLA did it by playing tough defense, limiting KU's transition game (in fact, UCLA, the team that has been labeled as the one that doesn't run by those that don't know it, got more transition points than KU), and rebounding (28-25). KU had its lowest scoring total of the season. While there are the nattering nabobs out there that knock Howland's approach, this was a testament to, really, in an era when running-and-gunning is the standard, it's revolutionary in its approach. On Saturday, it helped beat a more talented team. It's phenomenal that more programs haven't recognized it, and adopted it. It's basketball being played as a team, with toughness and intelligence, and it emerged superior. It is college basketball being played at its highest level. And even if UCLA faces Florida in the semi-final in Atlanta, you wouldn't want to bet against it a second time.
It has gotten UCLA to the Final Four for the second year in a row, and an NCAA record 17th-time as a program. It's the first time since 1975-76 that UCLA has been to consecutive Final Fours. With its record of 30-5, Howland is the first Bruins coach since John Wooden in 1972 and 1973 to have back-to-back 30-win seasons.
And while, again, there are those that say its style isn't pretty, as the seconds ticked off the clock and UCLA had the 68-55 advantage, and Arron Afflalo and his UCLA teammates pumped their fists in the air, there isn't a soul in the country who couldn't recognize the beauty of it.