It, once again, came down to luck for the Bruins. It was extremely lucky that the hit 14 threes and forced 18 turnovers, and had 12 steals.
Yet again, many sports pundits will chalk up UCLA's razor close win over the Bears to fortune smiling on them and all of those friendly ref calls, and then question whether UCLA is deserving of a #1 NCAA seed.
I can't keep this up for the entire analysis…
UCLA truly left no doubt Thursday against Cal, in just about every aspect of the game. When UCLA is playing for something – really something, like its personal pride and manhood rather than something as abstract as a #1 seed – that is probably the biggest motivator of them all.
So, all UCLA needs is every future opponent to question UCLA's legitimacy and manhood and the Bruins should be okay.
The intensity made all the difference on defense. UCLA's D shut down Cal for big chunks of the game, going on runs of 14-4 and 10-0 in the first half, and then 13-4 in the second half, and then created easy transition scoring. UCLA also showed great effort in rebounding, most of the time dominating the boards when it needed to (even though it got out-rebounded for the game, 30-29).
Again, Ben Howland's secret to basketball is proven correct: It's about defense and rebounding.
In fact, UCLA did it with rebounding, defense and transition scoring without perhaps the National Player of the Year. When Kevin Love had to sit for 14 minutes of the first half, after collecting his second foul, the Bruins first looked a bit staggered, allowing Cal back in the game, drawing to within 19-17. But then Lorenzo Mata-Real did yeoman's work, and UCLA went on that 10-0 run, fueled by defense, blocked shots and Cal turnovers. Mata-Real, in 14 first-half minutes, had 8 points, 3 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. With him holding down the five position, UCLA finished the half up 39-25, and the game was pretty much over.
It was especially over when Love then came back in for the second half and hit three consecutive three-pointers, dished off a couple of nice assists and pulled down three quick boards. When Josh Shipp added another three-pointer, UCLA was up 18, 51-33, at about the 16-minute mark, and Cal then rolled over.
Darren Collison's 5 threes were daggers. He has such a knack for making the big three-pointer during a time in the game when the opposition is mounting a run and presuming they're getting back in it, which he did, again, against Cal. He finished with 19 points, 5 assists and 2 steals, and kept Cal point guard Jerome Randle to just 4 points and forced him into 6 turnovers.
In that stretch of the first half, when Cal had come within two, and UCLA couldn't make a shot, Russell Westbrook carried the Bruins. The 10-0 run that really put UCLA in the driver's seat came with Westbrook leading the way. He scored 5 of those points and supplied the two pretty dishes for two more baskets. He ended with 12 points, 5 assists (against just 1 turnover) and 4 rebounds.
You don't want to say that Josh Shipp came out of his shooting slump, because you wouldn't want to jinx it. But when he goes 6 for 10 fro the field and 3 for 6 from three you might be able to make that claim, finishing with 18 points.
Cal definitely looked fatigued, coming off a tough win Wednesday night. By the time Love and Shipp had started off the second half with four consecutive three-pointers it looked like the Bears were spent. They stopped guarding Collison from behind the line, which is, really, about the stupidest thing you can do defensive against UCLA.
To UCLA's credit, though, the difference in this game compared to last Saturday's wasn't just Cal's fatigue, or UCLA's increase of intensity. There were definitely some adjustments made – both defensively and offensively – that had a substantial effect on how UCLA matched up against Cal. On defense, the Bruins were much better at hedging and rotating off the hedge. On offense, UCLA is starting to show a tinge of a drive-and-dish offense, trying another tactic to get its outside shooters open. And, when you shoot 14 of 25 from three, you'd have to say it was successful. Westbrook penetrating, drawing the defense and then dishing to a wide open Collison on the wing is truly a thing of beauty.
Even when UCLA was missing many easy shots in the first half, it was still executing its offense well. It's still looking down love for Love, but itt's starting to take advantage of the ability of Collison and Westbrook to penetrate and kick, which might be one of the most exciting developments in UCLA's offense in a while. Creating so many wide-open looks really helps your shooting, as Shipp and Collison will attest, with the team shooting a scalding 53% from the field for the game.
So, now, can Howland arrange to have Cal's players publicly dis-respect UCLA before every remaining game in March – and April?