UCLA played its worst game of the season last Saturday against USC, and then it bounced back with perhaps its biggest win, beating Oregon in Eugene, 80-75.
The Ducks don't lose very often on McArthur Court. In fact, the #1-ranked Bruins from last season lost to the Ducks in that very place.
And these Bruins did it with three of its top nine players absent from the game because of injury, and then losing another after he fouled out with about nine minutes left in the game.
They won this one with guile, and because of the re-awakening of Darren Collison.
Collison scored a career-high 22 points and dished out 6 assists against just one turnover in playing easily his best game of the year. Perhaps the lesson of the USC game really sunk in with Collison – to be a leader and maintain the poise of the team, which he did against the Ducks very effectively. In that environment, where you're barely able to hear your teammate on the court if he's a couple of feet away from you, with the harassment from the fans, and Oregon wanting to wind up the tempo, it's not difficult to get caught up in it and lose your focus. But Collison looked like the experienced veteran he is Thursday. There were a number of instances when he calmed down the team, re-set the offense and was patient in looking for a good shot. He also showed some of the best vision he's had in a game in quite a while, finding teammates off pick-and-pops or pick-and-rolls calmly and efficiently. He hit a number of big shot, two big threes and a few floaters after penetrating into the lane, when UCLA was struggling to find some offense. He also icily hit 6 of 6 free throws.
Collison looked like he had an entirely different demeanor on the court. He looked focused and intent, with the chaos going on around him. His face was composed and all-business.
That's the Darren Collison this team needs to lead it to another Final Four.
Along with Collison's excellent game, Kevin Love had one of his few best games of the season, finishing with 26 points and 18 rebounds. There wasn't much he didn't do right in this one – hitting threes (even one off-balanced, forced one), scoring in the post, fighting three Ducks at a time for rebounds, taking charges, and playing really well with Collison on those pick-and-pops and pick-and-rolls. What was also nice was to see UCLA's offense completely focused – most of the time – in getting Love a touch. And how the offense didn't just sit Love down in the post, but moved him inside and outside and from block to block to get him loosened up from the collapsing Oregon defense.
It was really interesting to watch Love in this game, too, since he was playing in front of his home-state crowd, on the campus of his dad's alma mater – which makes Ducks fans hate him. He was getting blasted with harassment and abusive epithets, booed every time he touched the ball. For a freshman, he showed incredible poise. And watching him, you really tended to share his satisfaction, as well as the satisfaction you could see on Stan Love's face, as Kevin got the best of Ducks.
It's probably the sweetest way to win of all – when you're getting bombarded by trash-talking and abuse in an environment like that, and you calmly beat them and shut them up.
Russell Westbrook was also a key component of this win, finishing with 15 points and 7 rebounds. He hit some big shots against Oregon's zone, penetrating into the key, while hitting two threes shooting over it.
Providing key minutes were both James Keefe and Nikola Dragovic. Keefe played 19 minutes and fouled out – a minute after he hit a big three to bring UCLA to within 55-58 in crunch time. The assuredness he had taking that three, like the one he made against USC, is very encouraging. Dragovic made easily his biggest contribution in two years of being at UCLA, playing 12 minutes and playing solid defense. Oregon, on one huge UCLA possession, left him alone after doubling Collison, and Dragovic rattled home a big three-pointer to make it 70-71 with 3:21 left. UCLA out-scored the Ducks 10-4 to then win the game.
The game was an example of the mixed bag you get with Alfred Aboya, and how, if he refined his game some, he'd be far easier to have on the floor for extended minutes. He had one of the best plays of the game when he dove on the ground to wrestle away a loose ball, which then led to one of UCLA's few fast-break baskets. But man, can he also make some mistakes. He got called for a bad screen, and some reaching fouls – perhaps the worst when he came all the way out to pick up Malik Hairston about 24 feet from the basket and fouled him. Many of Aboya's mistakes are of the bone-head variety and you'd think those would be cleared up by now, his junior season.
We're not going to blame him for that goal tending, however, since it clearly wasn't.
In fact, we don't usually talk about the reffing, since you can complain about the refs' performance in just about every game. But this one was one of the more abysmal reffing jobs in recent memory. UCLA was getting called for just about every reach, while Oregon was practically mugging Bruins and not hearing a whistle. It was definitely a case of getting homered.
Perhaps the player that made the biggest impact on the game besides Love and Collison was easily Oregon's Hairston. Hairston's impact was felt entirely by his absence, sitting out the majority of the second half with cramps. He had scored 18 points up until that point and was an unstoppable force. UCLA's defense didn't know what to do with him, trying Aboya, Keefe, Westbrook and even Chace Stanback against him, to no avail.
If Hairston had played this entire game, and continued to play the way he did before he had to sit, UCLA plainly doesn't win this game.
But then again, if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute didn't have to sit out with a concussion, he probably would have diminished Hairston's impact.
You can see what happens without Mbah a Moute. Simply, UCLA becomes a pretty average defensive team. Oregon had a very good offensive strategy, spreading the floor, with all five of its players setting up on the perimeter, creating a great deal of space in the paint for someone to create. Many times Ducks were taking Bruins off the dribble with no help, not even with a ball screen, and with that penetration finding a teammate under the basket for easy lay-ins. Then if you add a ball screen, UCLA's defense is then particularly mediocre. UCLA's perimeter defenders struggle to defend their man off ball screens and simple curl cuts, failing to hedge and bump. And then, if they did, they failed to rotate and pick up the man rolling to the basket. Not having Mbah a Moute really hurt, since, without him able to match-up against Hairston, it created a defensive mis-match for UCLA on down the line. But many times, it wasn't the fault of Mbah a Moute's absence; there were plenty of times UCLA defenders simply couldn't stay in front of their man.
After UCLA had a 40-36 advantage at halftime, Oregon really stretched the floor on offense, and was mixing up man and zone just about every UCLA possession. It resulted in Oregon getting easy baskets just about every time down the floor and UCLA struggling to get even a good look. Oregon, by doing this, took control of the game – and went ahead 58-51 with about ten minutes left.
At this point, it looked pretty bleak. UCLA's offense was struggling, its defense couldn't get a stop, and was allowing Oregon easy lay-ups, and UCLA was in foul trouble, with Keefe fouling out and Aboya playing with four.
It definitely looked like, at this time, that this game could really go down hill in the last 10 minutes.
What turned it around? Amazingly enough, it was UCLA's offense, not its defense.
UCLA's defense wasn't good in this game. It wasn't good throughout the game and, in the last ten minutes it truly needed to step up and create some stops and it really didn't. Really the only time it looked like it stepped it up was after Dragovic's three-pointer, and that's when Oregon, amazingly, couldn't convert on a couple of offensive possessions. Luckily, also, Oregon's Tejaun Porter made a knucklehead play, taking an off-balance three pointer when Oregon was down 74-71 with about a minute left in the game – but with about 25 seconds left on the shot clock for Oregon. He got a stern talking-to by Oregon's Ernie Kent after that one.
But no, down the stretch UCLA won this game by converting offensively. When UCLA was down 61-64 with 6 minutes left, UCLA scored on its next five possessions. On the next possession, Westbrook missed a three-point attempt, but Love had a miraculous offensive rebound, which re-set the shot clock with 1:30 left and UCLA up by 72-71. Collison was fouled, he calmly made both free throws, and for the last minute and a half of the game UCLA coolly scored every time they had the ball.
This is not to say that UCLA, in any way, should rely on its offense to win games. Remember what got you here. It's defense, and UCLA will have to do quite a bit better at it if does, in fact, want to make it to San Antonio. And it wasn't just about missing Mbah a Moute, it was about the defense played by the guys on the court – mostly getting beat consistently by Oregon off the dribble.
But with that said, it really did make you realize how tough UCLA would have it without Mbah a Moute. It makes you wonder what they're going to do without him when he leaves UCLA; there just aren't too many 6-7, 230-pound guys out there who can defend anyone from a two guard to a center.
The win was a big one – going a long way in the Pac-10 standings to make up for the loss against USC. They lost one at home, but got it back by winning this big one on the road.
If UCLA can hold serve against Oregon State Saturday, and then the Arizona schools at home next weekend, it will come out of the first round of Pac-10 play 8-1, which it will need since the second round has it going to the states of Washington and Arizona, as well as across town. But this win at Eugene, in the frenzied atmosphere of Mac Court, was a big one, and probably one that no other Pac-10 team will get this season.