The two teams play the game so well, with discipline, intelligence, intensity and defense that it's like a small, little oasis in the overall degrading quality of basketball.
Of course, you love it more when UCLA comes out on top at Pullman, 67-59.
Both teams played very good defense Thursday night, and it's a testament to how well both the teams executed on offense that they shot 55% (UCLA) and 52% (WSU), respectively.
When two teams can play that kind of defense and both shoot over 50%, you're seeing a very high-quality basketball game.
I don't think I remember more back-door cuts in a game from both teams, and back-door cuts come from an over-playing, aggressive defense and smart, well-executing, opportunistic offense.
The two teams were playing pretty evenly, and the difference came in the second half, when UCLA went on an 8-0 run over just about a 2 ½-minute period.
That's all it takes between these two teams. Just a lapse of 2 ½ minutes and the other team is ready to pounce on you and get a big enough edge to win the game.
You did feel, however, UCLA had the upper hand, even when they were trading baskets for most of the games. It felt like it was just a matter of time, as it does so often with UCLA since they tend to wear down their opponents.
UCLA's offense, again, was the difference. The defense, of course, was critical, as it has been for the last several years. But the difference this year for the Bruins is a well-balanced, very efficient – but also very potent – offense. When UCLA needed to take advantage of a few stops it did, converting on the offensive end.
And they did it with that inside option that they haven't had since Howland was at UCLA – Kevin Love. The Bruins went to him early, in the first 6 minutes or so of the game, and they built a 10-4 lead. Of those ten points, Love was responsible for six of them, and it looked like we could get a repeat of his 27/14 performance against WSU at Pauley a month ago. But Washington State called a timeout and made an adjustment. The Cougars pushed Love out away from the basket and quickly doubled him when he touched the ball, something Love hadn't seen that much this year (but you would think would see more of down the road). It didn't exactly shut down Love, but it did tend to get him less touches in UCLA's offense.
But then, in the second half, the game was tied, 36-36, with about 12 minutes left. Love hadn't touched the ball much since those first six minutes, and when he did catch it beyond the three-point line he seemed to take a frustrated three that he missed.
But then there was a TV timeout and a couple of minutes later Howland took one himself. The Bruins then out-scored WSU 18-9, and Love had 8 of those 18 points. UCLA went to him, and, lo and behold, WSU's post defense had started to wear down. Love got to the basket or got fouled – or both.
It's a factor that doesn't show up in the box score – how UCLA, and specifically Love, can wear you down. It has to be tough defending him for 40 minutes. He's 270 pounds, but he's just not a random banger, he's relentlessly savvy, and after a while it must get to you – especially when you think you do defend him well in the post and he goes up, throws up his hands like a drama queen and gets a foul called. He had Aron Baynes on the bench with four fouls and Robbie Cowgill fouling out.
There are the little things, to go along with the big, obvious things -- scoring touch, the interior passing, the rebounding, the lob pass from the high post, the outlet passes.-- that make Love so tough. If you add them all up – the little and the big things – you have a pretty good argument that Love is going to be very competitive for national post-season player of the year awards. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player that is this good in so many ways, and most importantly, makes his team so much better.
Cowgill, in a post-game interview, said he had thought they shut down Love for the game, and then he said he saw that Love got 16 and 9 and realized they didn't shut him down. Robbie – that is shutting down Kevin Love.
But he still did enough, and enough of the little things, to beat you.
Darren Collison is also making a pretty phenomenal run here in the last few weeks that could rival the play of any UCLA guard over the course of a month in the last several years. Collison had 18 points (all in the second half), made the big shots when UCLA needed them and hit 7 of 7 free throws, mostly in crunch time. Over the last seven games, he's averaging 18.2 points and 5 assists per game, against just 1.7 turnovers. He's shooting 55% from the field and 50% from three. And beyond the stats, Collison is definitely providing leadership on the court, being the calming influence when UCLA needs to slow down and also being the go-to guy when UCLA needs a basket. When UCLA needed a basket down the stretch in this game, it cleared out for Collison, and he converted. His defense, and particularly his two sneaky steals on Washington State's one in-bound play and then a defensive rebound, were back-breakers. When WSU worked hard to get a stop and then Collison picked them and converted it into points you could see the Cougars deflate – twice. And his off-balance, prayer floater in the lane, when he was fouled, was one of the plays of the season so far.
With the potential national player of the year, and your point guard playing like a savvy veteran, at the level of a first-team All-American, you could say UCLA might make some considerable noise in March.
And again, while watching this game, you had to keep telling yourself that they're doing this without Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who is vastly critical to UCLA, particularly defensively.
If they had Mbah a Moute, in fact, this wouldn't have been as close. The way the defensive match-ups worked, you had Alfred Aboya matching up against WSU's ultra-quick wing, Kyle Weaver, and while Aboya is quick for a post player, he can't stay with Weaver. It's amazing that Aboya actually stayed in front of him for as long as he did. Weaver, with his 13 points and 7 assists, was the force for WSU that UCLA couldn't match.
Being a Cougar fan, since I admire how they play and are coached, I also am worried about their rebounding. They just aren't a good rebounding team, and against a team like UCLA, which, led by Kevin Love, can really rebound, it limited the Cougars to one-shot-and-out throughout the game. UCLA had 10 offensive rebounds to WSU's 4, leading them overall in rebounding, 27-16. You're not going to win many games against NCAA tournament teams getting 16 rebounds.
The critical sequence that pretty much sealed the game was about rebounding. With a little over 4 minutes left, UCLA was up by seven, but you could see WSU was going to mount its last push of the game. On one possession UCLA got four offensive rebounds, until Love finally put the ball back in to go up 54-45. Westbrook got one, Aboya got one and Love two, and it was a clear illustration of how, when it comes down to two well-coached teams who are very similar in their approach and execution, that it's the better players who will come out on top.
Russell Westbrook probably took a big step in maturity in this game. He committed five turnovers, and looked like he was going down the road he took against USC a month ago. But he turned it around. With his shot not falling, and even Low beating him off the dribble a couple of times, Westbrook blatantly looked like he slowed himself down on the offensive end of the floor. He had four huge assists, of the pretty Westbrook type when he penetrates and jump stops in the lane, and just patiently waits for a cutter and makes a beautiful pass. To his credit, he did keep Low from getting good outside looks, where Low is most dangerous, playing him pretty close, which would allow Low a better chance of getting around Westbrook. Low was 1 for 5 from three.
James Keefe also showed why the coaches and those in the know believe he has a chance to be a big-time player at UCLA. He had five points and four rebounds in just 11 minutes, and looked quick-footed on defense. He generally, when he doesn't foul, is very good at hedging screens. Keefe, with confidence and in rhythm, hit a three-pointer, the only one UCLA had made up until that point in the game. He had some very good rebounds, consistently grabbing the ball over Cougars. Keefe, you can see, is getting more and more comfortable, and experience like this – playing in Pullman in front of a hostile crowd – will only get him more comfortable in time for March. Keefe, of course, got more playing time because of the absense of Mbah a Moute, but if he can continue to contribute like he did Thursday night, there won't be any regrets by the end of the season that he came out of his redshirt year.
Overall, it was a critical win for the Bruins. It puts them at 9-1 in the conference, with eight games to play, and that was probably one of the toughest three games remaining on the schedule. UCLA would have to suffer a couple of big upsets, and Stanford would have to go practically unblemished the rest of the way for the Cardinal to catch them. With this win, it puts the Bruins in a very strong position to win its third Pac-10 championship in a row.
And again, it was without Mbah a Moute.