UCLA Beats Adversity and Ducks

It was one of those games -- when UCLA was hit with some adversity, as well as some lucky Duck bounces of the ball, and some downright strangeness. But with so many factors pushing the game toward the loss column, in the end the Bruins willed a win, 75-65...

When UCLA has to come back from an 11-point deficit to beat 9th-place Oregon, 75-65, it might cause a bit of grumblng from UCLA fans.

But in the case of this specific game, the grumbling is unwarranted.

UCLA didn't play really poorly. It's not as if UCLA was particularly unfocused or slack and they let a really bad Oregon team take advantage.

First, Oregon isn't bad. This is one of those times you can believe Head Coach Ben Howland's sandbagging. That is, seriously, one of the best 15-12, 6-9 teams you'll ever see. The Pac-10 has been getting a bunch of hype all season as a loaded conference, "the best conference in the country," but this is truly a tangible example of just how good the conference is – when you do, in fact, have a NCAA-caliber team at 6-9 in the conference.

A good basic way to measure how talented a team is: Consider whether anyone on the opposing team would start at UCLA. When you go around the league, there are a few teams that have one player who would start over a current UCLA starter, but not many with two players that would start at UCLA this season, like Oregon's Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen.

Now, just because Oregon has a couple of outstanding players doesn't mean it's a good team. But, combine Hairston, Leunen and an annoying offensive scheme that tends to play into UCLA's weaknesses, and you have a game that will always tend to give UCLA fits.

So, even though Oregon is inherently a good team, it is particularly a good team in its match up with UCLA.

Throw in a couple of other factors, too.

The Ducks were playing for their NCAA lives. If they could have notched a win, on the road, against the #6-team in the country, that win might have gotten Oregon through the door of the NCAA Tournament committee.

They, too, were just coming off a wrenching loss against USC, where they had the game basically in hand for 30 minutes only to hand it to the Trojans.

Oregon is a senior-laden team, with experienced players who understand their situation and have the savvy to know when they need to kick it up a notch.

Then, throw in a few other factors, too, and in a short, 40-minute game, where usually there isn't that much difference between two good teams and truly any good team can beat any other good team on a given night, and you don't have a lot of room for error.

And there were some other factors. And these kind of factors are going to happen to you sometimes, and they just happened to gang up on the Bruins Saturday:

-- Bad referring
-- Some lucky bounces of the ball for Oregon on offensive rebounds
-- UCLA's uncharacteristic poor free-throw shooting
-- Something strange happening with the east end side of the court

There were clearly a few calls that really snuffed out UCLA runs, where the Bruins looked like they were taking control of game, only to be beaten back by a bad call. The game was advantage Oregon, 25-23, after UCLA had been six points down, and Alfred Aboya got called for a blocking foul when Bryce Taylor went flying into the lane out of control. UCLA had been taking away the momentum from Oregon, getting its first few successive stops of the game, and this was the one that could have turned the game into a tie with a good UCLA possession, but the call deflated the run.

Then, a couple of minutes later, UCLA scraps back, and the score is Oregon 25-24, and the Bruins are picking up their defensive intensity. We've seen this before, this kind of sequence looking familiar – when, toward the end of the first half, you can sometimes see UCLA picking it up, wanting to get an edge before going into halftime. Off a hedge, UCLA trapped Tajuan Porter in the backcourt, and when he came around Darren Collison, Porter clearly slipped. It was one of those calls where you could probably safely say that everyone in the arena saw it – but the refs. There is a tendency for refs, when they see a player getting ball pressure and then hits the ground, to immediately blow a whistle, and that's what the ref did in this instance.

It set back UCLA's momentum a bit. The Bruins did still come back to tie the game at 31-31, before Porter launched one of his prayer threes, that go in pretty often, and UCLA is down 34-31 at a halftime.

But if you know basketball at all, you were firing up your cell phone and calling your bookie to take UCLA and give the points in the second half.

It would have been a good bet. In the first half, Oregon got a whopping seven offensive rebounds to UCLA's three. They scored 7 points off second chances (they only got second-chance points in the second half). As Howland said in his post-game interview, sometimes when you play a team that shoots a lot from the outside you're going to get strange, long rebounds, and that certainly happened in the first half. UCLA would put together a good defensive effort, not allow Oregon a good look at the basket for 30 seconds of the shot clock, and then a Duck would take a contested shot, and the ball would bounce off the basket luckily to a fellow Duck. Sometimes it just happens in life, and in basketball: You do things right but luck doesn't go your way.

Then, also, UCLA missed its free throws. In the first half it went 5 for 9, and those four missed free throws were critical, coming at key momentum-building times. Then, in the second half, UCLA missed a number of front ends – leaving a great deal of potential points at the free-throw line.

UCLA is, for the season, a good three-throw shooting team. Every once in a while, a team that shoots almost 75% on the season is going to shoot 65% for a game. Kevin Love missed five three throws, which is uncharacteristic. So, couple that with some other factors in the game going against the Bruins and, against a good team, that could be an edge big enough right there to lose a game.

But then UCLA went through one of the weirdest sequences in a game I can remember in a long time. Oregon's Leunen hit a three to start the second half, which he'll do (again, remember, he's a guy who could start at UCLA). So, with Porter's prayer three at the end of the first half and Leunen's, UCLA is then down six. But the Bruins were playing with fairly good intensity and you still felt, at this juncture, it was just a matter of time before those defensive rebound started bouncing true.

But strangely, UCLA players started slipping in the paint on their offensive end of the floor. Now, this is a first, when I'm going to at least bring up the possibility of something amiss with the court as being a factor in the game. Yeah, many might feel this is a stretch, and I don't have any evidence or good conjecture on what was wrong with the Pauley floor. But there certainly seemed like there was something. Four times UCLA players slipped when they ran through the paint of the key. On dead balls, the towel boy dumbfoundedly was trying to towel off the floor after no one had fallen, himself trying to understand what was happening and hoping it wasn't his fault.

And even if you don't attribute it to something wrong with the court, you have to admit, it was a strange sequence. Russell Westbrook, with a clear breakaway, slipped and missed a layup. He then slipped again and turned his ankle on another layup. Those four easy points right there kept UCLA from taking a lead in the game, and probably a hold on the game's edge. Then. Josh Shipp came through the paint and slipped like he was on ice.

If it was coincidence, and there was nothing wrong with the floor, then it was certainly strange. It, then, would have to be one of those Basketball Gods, playing with its voodoo dolls, making Bruins slip as they go toward the basket.

After considering all of the improbable factors, probably the factor that UCLA can control the most that you can cite, the biggest knock you could make against UCLA in this game, is that it really didn't start playing with its best defensive intensity until the last 12 minutes or so. In the first half, Collison allowed Porter dribble penetration, and the rest of the Bruins were slow in their rotations, as has been their defensive Achilles Heel this season. But the defense before that last 12 minutes wasn't really bad, by any means. It wasn't as if Porter or any other Duck was just walking right around Bruins to the basket.

But those last 12 minutes did show how good UCLA can be defensively when they are playing with urgency. If some Ducks were able to take Bruins off the dribble in the first 28 minutes, they weren't able to do it in the last 12. Even Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, when he got switched off on Porter, was able to keep him in front of him.

Many Bruin fans are pointing to UCLA's offense, calling it stagnant and ineffective. But that's a cursory view of UCLA's offensive situation. First, the offense didn't execute particularly poorly against Oregon, it just didn't finish well. There were quite a few blown lay-ins in both halves. And if you want to talk about not finishing, you have your designated three-point shooter, Josh Shipp, now 0 for 20 from threes in his last six games. He took one in this game and missed it. He had another look but went up and came back down, hesitant to shoot. Now, that is probably something to worry about heading into March, but, as we said, it'd be unlikely if Shipp continued his slump for the remainder of the season.

Then, in this game, you had Collison missing open mid-rangers that he's usually very good about making.

You even had Love missing lay-ups.

With all of that, it's amazing to see that UCLA still shot 50% for the game.

Stagnant? Yeah, the UCLA offense for some reason initiates with Collison dribbling too much, but the offense executed its plays fairly well to get those open looks – that the Bruins missed. Was the offense as good as it was against Arizona? No, mostly because Arizona's defense is particularly worse that Oregon's, especially in the way it matches up with UCLA.

And you have to give Oregon's Ernie Kent some credit. In the first game in Eugene, Love torched the Ducks for 26 and 18. Since then, UCLA's opponents have been making every effort to keep Love from touching the ball, as did Kent. UCLA is trying to get him the ball, but it's difficult when he's bracketed and pushed by two guys away from the basket before he touches it.

Also, you have to say, and we all know this: UCLA doesn't have anyone on the floor among its rotation of seven other players that can feed the post well to Love. There were a number of times in this game he was open, either with a bounce-pass entry or a lob over the top, but UCLA's perimeter players hesitated to make the pass.

Again, you could really use Mike Roll.

You could especially use Roll's shooting, too, when the opposition is packing it in and trying to take away touches from Love, and you, again, can't get anyone to knock down an outside shot. In a press conference, when Howland talks about Roll almost certainly not being able to come back this season you can see the coach is dying inside about it.

So, really, UCLA's offense didn't execute poorly, or wasn't stagnant, in this game. It's just a matter of some factors coming together – Love getting bracketed, the team missing some gimmes, Shipp's shooting slump and playing without Roll.

But, give the Bruins a huge amount of credit. With all of this adversity mounting against them, they still pulled out a win. This looked like a game where there were just too many factors going against UCLA and it would result in one of those unlucky losses. But UCLA wouldn't let that happen. You could see their collective will to win in the last 12 minutes. Love played like a mad man, with only the desire to win driving him and his teammates.

So, even though you went through some heart-stopping moments, if you indeed called your bookie at halftime you ultimately would have won that halftime bet.


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