Then, by the second half, no more complaints.
The trend over the last several games was to heap a great deal of blame on UCLA's offense – throwing out words and phrases like "stagnant," "can't shoot," and "inept."
UCLA ultimately scored 70 points, against a good defense that is allowing just 65 points per game, even with the Bruins stalling and running down every shot clock for a good portion of the second half.
The Bruins shot 49% from the field, against a team that's allowing 42%.
The Bruins shot 50% from three, making 10 of 12 three-pointers.
Hmm. Sounds okay.
If you compare this season to the last two Final Four season, UCLA is generally doing better offensively. It's averaging 74 points per game, compared to 71 and 67 in 2007 and 2006. It has a slight edge in overall shooting percentage this year, while its three-point shooting percentage is lower.
It's getting a far higher percentage of its points in the paint, too, which is where you want it to happen.
But we can understand the quick-to-react fans watching the ASU game for the first 10 minutes. UCLA's offense, to the cursory eye, didn't look very good, not scoring for the first 2 ½ minutes, and only scoring 8 points in ten minutes.
But, there are some factors that you have to consider. First, ASU came out pumped up and playing inspired on defense. Secondly, when faced with a zone like ASU's, you have to test it, poke and prod at it to see where its weaknesses are. Thirdly, we all have to know UCLA's modus operandi by now: Wear down the opponent and overcome them in the second half.
UCLA scored 41 points in the second half. There were some obvious half-time adjustments, made after UCLA felt out ASU's D for a half.
UCLA, in the first half, almost never flashed to the high post or to the short corner, but it started to do it in the second half. The Bruins, in the second half, picked apart ASU's zone, penetrating and dishing. The assist champion of the night was Josh Shipp, the guy who had been getting so much flak for going 0 for 20 shooting threes over the last six games. Maybe the shooting slump was good for Shipp, perhaps getting him to emphasize other aspects of his game – like passing – getting 8 assists in this one, mostly feeding UCLA's post players beautifully. Shipp was catching the ball at or around the high post and then immediately looking inside as Kevin Love backed down ASU's Jeff Pendergraph.
The second half was pretty offensive basketball, with Love working hard to get position – and getting it – and UCLA's perimeter players consistently looking inside for him.
It resulted in Love's best offensive game in a couple of weeks, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds. He also, delivered on his vow to always play hard and not go through a lull like he did against Oregon. Love was fired up the entire game, banging against Pendergraph, and ripping down 4 big offensive rebounds. He, miraculously, had three different lay-ups or tips that hung on the front of the rim for seemingly a second before falling in.
In the first half, with UCLA just bobbing and weaving and feeling out ASU, you have Darren Collison to thank for leading the Bruins to a 29-18 lead. Collison hit four three-pointers in the first half. That's 12 of UCLA's 29 points. And the shots were big ones. The first three came at times when UCLA couldn't get a good look inside against ASU's zone and were mostly end-of-the-clock desperation shots, one from about 25 feet. And the fourth was probably the dagger that slayed ASU for the game: Collison caught a Love outlet with the last few seconds ticking off the clock, fell off balance, settled himself and cooly hit a three. ASU was basically hanging in, and UCLA, with that shot, pushed the lead to double digits.
In the second half, UCLA built a 20-point lead, and went through a bit of a lull where ASU cut it to 14 to 16 for a few minutes, but the outcome was never really in doubt. And UCLA built that second-half lead with a very efficient offense.
The 50% shooting from three definitely helped to stretch ASU's zone. Before Collison hit those four first-half three-pointers, ASU was packing it in, sometimes surrounding Love with three players and daring UCLA to beat it from the outside. Shipp, then, came out of his slump and hit four three-pointers himself. It was an example of perserverance, too, since he hit his first attempt in the first half, then got off a couple of stinkers, before hitting three more. It was almost as if Shipp was saying, "Hey, I finally made one, I'm not going to stop shooting now."
When it comes down to it, between these two teams, though, this is how this game should be, with UCLA winning decisively. After you whittle it down from its zone defenses and over-playing Love and ASU's other gimmicks, UCLA inherently should win this game because of the basics -- offensive talent, defense and rebounding. When you have a team like ASU that's getting back on defense almost immediately after it takes one shot to take away UCLA's transition points, you know UCLA has a clear advantage. UCLA out-rebounded ASU 34-20, with ASU getting only three offensive rebounds, and those were all lucky bounces. Really, the only aspect where ASU can match UCLA in level of play is when its talented wing, James Harden, has the ball in his hand. But then again, UCLA has some pretty good defenders to rotate on Harden, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who did a good job throughout the night on him, holding Harden to 11 points on 4 of 10 shooting.
UCLA's defense was, in fact, the jump start for the Bruins in this game. In the first half, with the game tied 11-11, UCLA got two stops in a row, converted on the other end and went up 16-11. The way the game was going at that point you were thinking that perhaps those two stops were going to be difference in the game, actually.
Perhaps, again, the only issue about UCLA's defense is its slow rotations. There were still a number of times where Bruins didn't rotate off hedges. Ben Howland has said that, with the way UCLA hedges screens and doubles the post occasionally you're going to get beat on a rotation, but it does seem like it happens too often. And happens only because a Bruin falls asleep, not necessarily because the other team beat the rotation with quick passing.
Overall, this was a get-the-monkey-off-your-back game. Shipp broke out of his three-point slump. Love got his fire back. He also posted up with aggressiveness and his teammates worked harder than they ever have to get him the ball inside.
So, just a few more monkeys to get off UCLA's back – Arizona, Cal and Stanford – and UCLA could very well have that #1 NCAA seed.