The Loss to USC Still Stings

Basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove once again takes us through the pitfalls of the defeat at the hands of USC. Hopefully the Bruins can prove that it was just a hiccup this weekend against the Oregon schools and not let it turn into a coughing fit...

How did that happen?

Two Saturdays ago, the UCLA basketball team hosted the undefeated, top-five Washington State Cougars, and buried them from the opening tip-off.   It was impressive stuff, and the Bruins, who don't want for national media attention anyway, were suddenly everyone's chic pick again to play in the national title game.  Never mind about North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas.  Confidence, from within and without, was high.

Too high, it turns out, because one Saturday later, the Bruins -- I think it was the Bruins, it was hard to tell from the poor shot selection, undisciplined decisions, and spotty defense -- played their worst game of the year, and fell apart down the stretch to lose to USC.

I have officially declared a personal moratorium on Looking For a Bright Side in this one.  It was simply a bad loss -- not just because of the final score, but because it was like UCLA suddenly forgot what has made them so good under Coach Ben Howland (who didn't have his best game, either.)

A little more salt in the wound?  The loss came at a sold-out Pauley Pavilion that had some serious juice that day.  Tickets were hard to come by.  It was on national TV, with "Battle For LA" CBS promos, and the predictable Love vs. Mayo storyline.  Magic Johnson was in the crowd.  Bruin greats like Ed O'Bannon and Cade McNown were spotted near courtside, doing eight-claps.  Ricky Manning, Tracy Murray, Terry Donahue, and Jim Harrick made it to Pauley.  This was the genuine, stirring, and glitzy vibe that had been largely missing at UCLA games for years.

Maybe it was all that buzz that had the players too amped; the Bruins looked over-excited, often flustered, and never in control.  Somehow, the team that went to back-to-back Final Fours wasn't immune to showing false bravado, getting caught up in ego battles, or talking some yang before the game.

Josh Shipp started it off with some pre-game quotes basically calling out the Trojans as stat grubbers who were looking to get their own numbers, and not sacrificing for the good of their team.

A bit of an eyebrow-raiser (and unintentionally funny, coming from Shipp.  Lo Mata-Real or Alfred Aboya?  Maybe they can talk about that stuff.)

Still, I was inclined to chalk it up to Josh Being Josh, the verbal equivalent of his 360-dunk in garbage time.  Shipp's confidence is one thing that sets him apart; sometimes it spills out indiscriminately.

Plus, as the junior wing kept draining three-pointers, who wasn't willing to look past a little smack talk to beat writers?  But, as good as his offense was (five three-pointers, 21 points), he took a bad trey down the stretch, and worse, let USC glue guy/ad hoc point guard Daniel Hackett get a key lay-up and assist in the final two minutes.

Overall, though, Shipp had a good game.  Not so for Bruin guard Russell Westbrook.

Let's go back about two weeks, to halftime of the Washington State game.  At that point, Westbrook had thrown down a sick, double-clutch dunk over Cougar Kyle Weaver, continued to drain mid-range jump shots, play great defense (while leading the Pac-10 in assists), and generally looked like the most dynamic perimeter player in the nation's toughest conference.  I texted a prominent Bay Area sports media personality that Westbrook -- no joke -- had to be in the discussion for Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Premature exclamation.

Westbrook came back to earth in the second half against the Cougars.  Okay.  Happens.

But man, did he have One Of Those Games against USC.

No baskets for the first 26 minutes of the game. A missed dunk, flat jump shots, ill-advised passes, repeatedly having his pocket picked or his shot blocked.  It wasn't pretty, and clearly was an anomaly in an otherwise revelatory and brilliant half-season for the sophomore.

He was matched up against Mayo, and on the plus side, Westbrook did play very good defense against O.J.  But it was interesting -- there were some Internet tales of the two going at it in pickup games all summer, and Westbrook not backing down from Mr. All-Everything.  In this game, though, Westbrook played like the anxious, insecure challenger, and Mayo like the guy who knows he's better, and wasn't going to be drawn into the whole contretemps.

But Russell wasn't alone.  An assessment of UCLA's players in this one has to include Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.  Please understand that my appreciation for what The Prince has accomplished during his time in Westwood could not be deeper or more profound, when I say this:

Wow, was he bad.

Mbah a Moute looked fine early on when he got the ball in the high post and looked to pass.  Otherwise, well…maybe it was the concussion that caused him to keep shooting, brick after brick, none of them close.  Can we blame the concussion for the poor ball handling, and multiple turnovers?  Unclear.

Luc, of course, is a huge gamer, an immensely likeable and important player for the Bruins.  But it has been a strange season for him thus far.  A huge part of what made him so good as a freshman was playing within himself, as a quick and instinctive power forward.  This season -- due mostly to injuries, but maybe also to the misguided idea that his NBA position would be small forward -- he's shuttling back and forth between the four (good) and the three (ummm….).  It's taking its toll on him and the team.  His role, usually so well defined for all Howland's players, seems murky here.

So far, it hasn't been the season that point guard Darren Collison was anticipating, either.  Predictions of his candidacy for Pac-10 Player of the Year, for 1st-team All-American, and UCLA's likely crunch-time stud -- essentially, Arron Afflalo circa 2007 -- have not materialized yet, due to injury and middling play early on.

Collison had been rounding into form, though, and against Washington State, he looked dynamic and dangerous (in my opinion, for the first time all season).  His 16 second-half points included sweet mid-range jumpers, runners in the lane, and explosive forays to the hoop.

This boded well for the USC game.  The results, though, were a mixed bag.  He looked good in flashes; his midrange game was nice, and he showed energy on defense.  But he really overdribbled, still looked tentative, and his decision-making on the fast break was not much better than Luc's.  Running the break is just not Collison's strength, and where his lack of true point guard skills (think Chris Paul or Jason Kidd) are most apparent.  It hurt the Bruins on two late fast-break chances, and they got no points on either.

It was that kind of day, and that kind of stretch run for the Bruins.  Normally so methodical in grinding out wins in the last ten minutes of games, UCLA was undone by poor decision-making, less-than-stellar composure, and a disturbing trend of jacking up three-pointers while USC was making lay-ups and dunks.  (Now I know how the other half lives.)

Coach Howland had an off game, too.  His team looked ill-prepared and overwrought, and somehow seemed to develop amnesia about what to do in crunch time: Get the ball to Love, and play smart defense.  They did neither.
I have usually defended Coach Howland's unusual timeout usage, as being forward thinking and aggressive.  But in UCLA's two losses this season, seems to me we could have used a timeout or two in the final minutes.

For Bruin fans, this was a rough one, because there's no way around it: Tim Floyd out-coached Howland, Davon Jefferson and Taj Gibson outplayed Love and Luc, and Hackett and Mayo were better than Westbrook and Collison.

The fact that Mata-Real and Mbah a Moute (concussions) both may be out for the Oregon game is just one more residual buzzkill from a game that had many.

So, round one definitely goes to USC.  The return of serve, on Feb. 17th at the Galen Center, has gotten a lot more interesting.

But now it's on to Eugene, where jilted Oregon fans will be raining boos on native son Kevin Love every time he touches the ball, which, for UCLA, needs to be a lot, or a one-game hiccup could become a two-game coughing fit.

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