UCLA fans were longing for an easy victory, and they got one in the most critical game of the season, beating Xavier in the West Regional Final to advance to the Final Four, 76-57.
UCLA was dominant in its win over #3-seeded Xavier, putting together one of its best performances of the year.
It's, of course, UCLA's third straight Final Four. In fact, there was a completely different feeling to the victory compared to the two wins in the last two Regional Finals – out on the court or in the locker room after the game. This isn't a case of a team just happy to have accomplished what it has; It's definitely a team with a higher purpose, with a sense of business, knowing it's done this before and wanting a bigger prize.
That kind of business-like focus was certainly evident on the court before the celebration. It had been written about quite often – how this team hadn't put together too many games when they actually played 40 minutes of focused basketball. It had been speculated that this was a big-game team – that needed a big game for it to play 40 focused minutes.
Well, it certainly did that Saturday. UCLA came out from the beginning with intensity and focus and didn't have too many lapses from that focus in the next 40 minutes of play.
That translated to a strong defensive effort that stifled Xavier's offensive attack. The Musketeers shot 36% from the field, a team that usually shoots 47%. Its big gun in the NCAA Tournament, Josh Duncan, who had been averaging over 20 points in Xavier's three previous tournament games, was held to 11 points, three rebounds, and forced into 3 turnovers. The other element of Xavier's one-two combo, point guard Drew Lavender, was held to five points. The two of them combined for 6 of 20 shooting and 2 of 9 from three.
In reality, the Duncan-Lavender combo wasn't nearly as formidable as many UCLA had faced previously this season. UCLA handled them both fairly easily, with Duncan unable to get many good looks around the basket because of Kevin Love's excellent post defense and Lavender, who isn't near as quick as he should be for being 5-7, unable to do any damage through dribble penetration. UCLA only needed to double Duncan a couple of times – in fact, in the first Xavier possession of the game, a double forced him into an rushed, errant pass that Russell Westbrook easily stepped in front of to take the length of of the court for a dunk. Not having to double Duncan allowed UCLA not to have to rotate defensively as much, which was key to UCLA not allowing easy baskets, which had been a defensive weakness this season. UCLA's other defensive weakness – staying in front of dribble penetrators – wasn't much of an issue, with Lavender simply not quick enough to get around Collison consistently. That took Xavier out of its drive-and-kick offense, keeping it from getting good outside looks. Eventually, by the second half, with UCLA staying focused defensively and not wavering, Xavier got frustrated and turned the ball over in a few very critical possessions.
So, UCLA held down Xavier offensively and then out-rebounded them 37-28, and the Musketeers simply didn't have enough chances to make a run at the Bruins.
Really the only thing in the entire game where Xavier held an advantage was in its offensive rebounding (it had 14 offensive rebounds for the game) – and that wasn't even necessarily a result of the Musketeers out-playing the Bruins but more, again, a consequence of those lucky bounces in basketball. Without those offensive rebounds, providing Xavier a number of second chances on its offensive possessions, this wouldn't have even been as close as the 19-point final deficit.
On offense, the beef against the Bruins had been that they needed to get some additional scoring from somewhere besides Love and Collison, and in this one, they did. Russell Westbrook filled out the stat book with 17 points, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Whether it was a matter of Mbah a Moute's ankle being better or not, this was definitely the good version of Mbah a Moute. You hate to repeat a cliché, but in this game it was the Freshman Mbah a Moute, the one who knows his role of playing defense and rebounding, and getting points through putbacks and being strong around the basket. When UCLA plays with this version of Mbah a Moute – Mbah a Moute 1.0, if you will – the Bruins become a pretty formidable force. Ben Howland, in his after-game comments, attributed Mbah a Moute's performance to him taking a few games to get back in the flow after being out with the ankle sprain.
Good timing. Hopefully one more week of getting back in the flow will get us more Mbah a Moute 1.0.
There weren't too many bad moments in this one for the Bruins. Perhaps the most worrisome was when UCLA was truly starting to dominate and take control of the game toward the end of the second half. On a turnover, Westbrook went the length of the court, in his occasional sped-up mode, against a couple of Xavier defenders, and you knew he was going to force the ball up – which he did. Then, in semi-transition, Stanley Burrell came back the other way and hit a three-pointer. It was a big 5-point turn, and it kept Xavier hanging on, 24-20.
It was, though, just a finger in the dyke. UCLA finished the half on a 9-4 run. And then it came out in the second half with the same focus in their eyes, going on a 15-4 run in the first five minutes of the second period. Xavier, after starting the half with baskets from Duncan and Lavender, then missed its next four shots, mainly because UCLA didn't allow a good look at the basket during all four of those possessions. The run was fueled by a 5-point UCLA possession, when Westbrook was fouled on a break, missed his free throw, but Love got the offensive board, kicked it out to Collison for one of his dagger threes. A couple of minutes later, with Xavier deflated and getting worn down by UCLA, Love found himself open from three and buried it – and the burying of Xavier was on. UCLA was up 48-28 with just about 15 minutes left in the game, and it was just a matter of UCLA being smart on every offensive possession and maintaining its tough defense to coast to the win.
A certain assistant coach I know, when he watches tough, physically dominating players, tends to say, "He's a bitch."
That's exactly what Love is. He is a bitch. When he has his eyes and those big mitts set on a rebound no one is going to deter him. There was a sequence in the second half – the kind that have become very common place this season – when Love gets an offensive rebound, puts it up again, gets the rebound again, puts it up again, etc, etc. He clearly is doing it just to pad his rebounding stats.
Howland, after the game, called Love the best post player in the country. Not to get ahead of UCLA's next game, but it'd be good and fitting to see Love go up against North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in the NCAA Championship game and see just who does deserve that title.
It would be glorious.
But there is really no need to get ourselves sped up like that. We scold Westbrook for doing it, so we won't either. There is enough glory right now, after UCLA gained its third Final Four in three years, for the UCLA program and its fans to feel some considerable satisfaction.
Probably the most satisfying aspect of this game was UCLA's all-business demeanor and consistent focus. It had been a lingering issue with this team, one that had been analyzed by many pundits – that they couldn't sustain focus or intensity. We asserted before the game, on the BRO message board, that this team does, indeed, play with more intensity and focus than most teams, it just doesn't have the level of talent that the other #1 seeds in the tournament have. Its margin for error in focus and intensity is less than other, more talented teams. In this game, the focus and intensity weren't an issue. Even when it needed to stay composed, up by double digits in the second half, UCLA generally played smartly. After Collison hit that dagger three-pointer, Westbrook – the guy who can succumb to being sped up – could have forced a break on the next possession but stepped it back out and slowed it down.
So, the issue is this. What would you rather have? A team with superior talent, or one that has the experience, savvy and capability of playing with a higher degree of focus and intensity?
The Final Four will probably answer these questions. At this point, though, without a Florida in the field – a team that is clearly more talented than the rest – you might rather have the team that has that been battled-tested by two previous Final Fours and has the experience of what it takes to win it.
That would be your Bruins.
I disagree with Howland and the players, however, when they say they absolutely won't be satisfied with this season unless UCLA wins a national championship. I know there are many fans out there that feel the same way. But we're fans, not players and coaches. Players and coaches have to adopt that approach and mindset to optimize their chance of winning the championship. We fans, though, don't.
So, it gives us an opportunity to express our satisfaction and appreciation. Sit back, Bruin fans, and bask in the fact that UCLA will now go to three Final Fours in a row. If you, seriously, had proposed the notion just a few years ago, most everyone, including our own Bruin brethren, would have scoffed at you, and rightly so. It's an accomplishment that very few programs have achieved in the history of college basketball. It's UCLA longest string of Final Fours since John Wooden hung up his whistle in the 1970s. UCLA is, astoundingly, 35-3 on the season, its most winning season in history.
No matter what happens in San Antonio, Bruin fans, appreciate the fact that UCLA, with this third Final Four, is definitely in the midst of a new Golden Era in Bruin basketball. It's something that's hard to reach and more difficult to sustain. When you're in San Antonio – like when you were Indianapolis and Atlanta – look around and see "UCLA" on all the banners, t-shirts and hats and truly savor it.
But if you are one of those that tend to get a little greedy and aren't happy unless UCLA gets that national championship, you should get some confidence from the fact that the UCLA players, in the locker room after the Xavier game, were completely different than they were after beating Memphis and Kansas in the Regional Final the last two years. There was definitely a sense of been-there-done-that and that they had a higher calling.
Perhaps call it focus and intensity.