USC, despite being behind, were out-playing UCLA for most of the game, but then deflated in the second half. UCLA, well, you could say, inflated.
It actually didn't look good for UCLA for most of the game, even though they were leading throughout. There were a number of factors that were pointing toward USC eventually over-taking the Bruins, and they did so about three minutes into the second half. The Trojans were playing very effective defense against UCLA, forcing UCLA into making tough shots, while on the other side of the floor, USC was getting easy looks and lay-ups.
USC was generally playing with a high intensity on defense, and executing very effectively on offense. UCLA, on the other hand, was lazy and slow on defense, and pretty much a mess offensively.
And USC was doing it almost completely without their best player, Taj Gibson, who had to sit after picking up three fouls in the first half. UCLA shot 62% for the first 11 minutes of the first half, too, hitting four three pointers, two coming from Jrue Holiday, who was shooting 30% from three coming into the game.
Given all of these factors, It was reasonable to expect UCLA's lead wouldn't last. Especially toward the end of the first half, when UCLA went cold from the line, weren't hitting the tough shots anymore, and USC cut it to 33-31 at halftime.
To start the second half, UCLA made its first basket, and then USC went on a 12-0 run to make the score 43-37. Gibson was back in the game, the Trojans were doing everything well, and it didn't look good.
But then the energy of the game completely shifted. USC, with its short bench, ran out of gas. While, on the other hand, UCLA settled down, started playing far better defensively, and wrestled control of the game. After Gibson made a nice pivot under the basket to make the score 51-45 with 10:50 left, UCLA went on a 13-2 methodical run over the next seven minutes. A gassed USC scored just nine total points in the last 10 minutes.
How'd it happen? First, you have to attribute a great deal of it to USC lack of a bench. Dwight Lewis played 40 minutes, DeMar DeRozan 38, Daniel Hackett 36 and Keith Wilkinson 36. Gibson would have played at least that if he hadn't been in foul trouble.
Secondly, USC not only got physically drained, you could see they were mentally and emotionally drained. They had played at such a high intensity on both sides of the floor and just couldn't sustain it.
Thirdly, there was Alfred Aboya. Aboya, like Gibson, sat out most of the first half in foul trouble, but then played most of the second half. UCLA's defense needs Aboya, and his presence greatly offset Gibson's return in the second half as well as plugging the middle for UCLA.
There was Darren Collison, who carried UCLA through when it couldn't execute its offense at all. He was the high scorer for the game with 18 points, and dishing out six assists against just 1 turnover. Collison also improved defensively as the game wore on, being able to stay in front of USC's Daniel Hackett far better in the last 15 minutes or so.
There was also Holiday, who played one of his best games as a Bruin, scoring 13 points (11 in the first half), going 3 for 4 from three, with two assists, and no turnovers. He also was instrumental in shutting down USC's high scorer, Lewis, for the game, with Lewis finishing with just 4 points, and was big down the line in bottling up DeRozan. On perhaps the biggest possession of the game, USC had the ball trailing 61-58 with under a minute left, and Holiday got up in DeRozan and locked him up. Knowing DeRozan's game, having defended him many times in high school and AAU ball, it was clear Holiday was very confident in pressuring DeRozan away from the basket, knowing that DeRozan couldn't out-quick him. He almost forced two turnovers, which ate up time on USC's shot clock and greatly disrupted their offense. Holiday also did some other things, too, like he always does, that don't show up on a stat sheet – like being caught in the air and resourcefully bouncing a ball off a Trojan's back to retain possession. His pass on a back-door cut to Nikola Dragovic was easily the prettiest play of the game.
Dragovic scored a career high 14 points in his first start of the season. It's pretty clear now, despite some of Dragovic's drawbacks, he's generally become more of an advantage that James Keefe at the four position. Keefe is still the better defender and rebounder, but Dragovic is improving. And we're all just going to have to live with the fact that he's a lifetime 30% three-point shooter who shoots threes as often as a 60% three-point shooter (he shot 3 for 9 in this one). There were some big misses on wide-open looks from three in this one, but there were also a couple of big threes he did make down the stretch that really boosted a struggling UCLA offense. Opposing teams recognize that Dragovic isn't a great three-point shooter, thus the reason why he's getting those wide-open threes, so hopefully he can exploit that until opposing defenses tighten up on him from three.
It was, overall, a well-played and well-coached game. Both teams played very good defense. UCLA couldn't even get into their sets, much less get a good look, for a huge portion of the game. The Bruins were forced many times to take a desperation shot at the end of the shot clock, or try to create something off its simple high ball screen for Collison. USC, in the last ten minutes, was swarmed by UCLA's ball pressure D, being unable to get dribble penetration like they had been. Neither team could get any points off transition.
While you can say what you want about USC coach Tim Floyd, you can't deny he's a good coach. USC's offense is greatly conceived, utilizing hard cuts and some well-executed screens to get open, easy looks. Every time down the floor the Trojans are doing something different offensively, and it kept the Bruins off-balance for a large part of the game. They, too, cut up UCLA's trapping defense, passing out of it with ease for lay-ups.
But the Trojans didn't have the horses. Well, enough horses.
And UCLA does have Darren Collison. While he ended his streak of consecutive free-throws, setting the all-time UCLA record at 41, he played 39 minutes in this one, and had every right, like the Trojans, to get gassed. But he didn't. His energy, steadiness and leadership righted the UCLA ship in the last 10 minutes and brought it into port. In 39 minutes of play, he had just one turnover. In fact, in his last five games, he hasn't committed more than one turnover in each game, while having 36 assists, which is a 7.2 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio – an astounding number. In those games, he's committed just one turnover in every 32 minutes played. In his last three games, he's averaging 18 points, and is 4 for 8 from three, understanding, too, that UCLA needs him to score and he's been asserting himself from the initial jump ball.
And, when other teams' leaders act like punks, it's a credit to UCLA that Collison leads with class.