That was one of the better-played games I've seen this season, one in which the Bruins ultimately prevailed, 85-76.
There was just about everything you could imagine in it – star players stepping up, intensity from both teams, the outcome possibly going either way right down to the end, a dramatic story about a player being so de-hydrated he needed an IV at halftime, and a contrast of playing styles – and player styles – that lent itself to a very good college basketball game.
After the game, UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland praised his seniors, and they were deserving. Josh Shipp led UCLA with 20 points, while getting five rebounds and four assists against zero turnovers. Darren Collison had 17 points and five assists. Alfred Aboya, the guy who needed an IV (but couldn't get one; he was so de-hydrated, apparently, they couldn't find a vein in his arm), had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
It was probably one of Shipp's best game as a Bruin, if not the best. He made minimal mistakes, drove the basket when it was warranted, generally took smart shots, and then did all of the other stuff he does well – scoring garbage and getting out on the break. He also was perfect – three for three – from the three-point line. He calmly made five of six free throws, a few of them in the last couple of minutes when they were considerably needed.
It's encouraging that, heading into the final lap of his UCLA career, Shipp is perhaps playing the best ball of his career. A career 32% three-point shooter coming into Pac-10 play this season, Shipp is now shooting 53% from three in the conference this season. He's averaging 14.4 points per game, shooting 86% from the free-throw line. He still has moments where he forces things and turns the ball over (10 total turnovers on the Arizona road trip), but many of those turnovers are coming when someone on the team needs to make a play and Shipp forces it, rather than in the past when he forced it seemingly for no reason.
Aboya almost made Howland cry in the coach's post-game interview. Coming off the flu, Aboya played 28 minutes and you wouldn't have even noticed that he was that de-hydrated. He made a number of key plays, perhaps the biggest being a composed face-up jumper on the baseline at about 2:30 left.
Nikola Dragovic perhaps had his best all-around game as a Bruin also. He finished with 15 points and a career-high 8 rebounds, but even beyond the stats, Dragovic played hard, showed some considerable hustle and physicality, and that very good passing ability. A wrap-around entry to Aboya for a lay-in was a beauty.
It was also encouraging that Jrue Holiday put in a good performance, with 10 points and 4 rebounds. He was credited with just one assist, but he had a number of great passes. He also didn't get credit for even one steal, but he was responsible for a number of Washington turnovers early in the game that were big factors in UCLA establishing a lead that it never yielded.
Mike Roll gave the team a boost with his six points and very good defense. He scored a runner in the lane with his left hand and, as Howland said, it looked like he had done it every day of his life. James Keefe, in his 9 minutes off the bench, provided some much-needed rebounding, especially on the offensive side. Drew Gordon was key in giving Aboya a rest and doing it without much of a drop-off.
It was truly a good and riveting game to watch. UCLA would make a min-run, and go up by 8 to 10, and then Washington would persevere and scrap their way back. The game was tied at 55 with about 11 minutes left, and Washington was getting easier shots while UCLA was working hard for their shots. At this point, everyone in the building was thinking that the game could easily go either way.
But then UCLA went on a 6-0 run where they played very well on both ends of the court. Dragovic had a pretty shovel pass to a cutting Collison, Holiday had a nice lay-in after a turnover, and Collison went around the requisite ball screen and was fouled on a drive. In between these nice offensive possessions, UCLA played very good D, with Dragovic getting a huge defensive rebound, Aboya playing very physical post defense, while forcing two turnovers. Washington's Justin Dentmon hit a long-range three to stop the run, but Dragovic countered with that wrap-around feed to Aboya. Dragovic then corralled another loose defensive rebound and Collison took it the length of the court. So UCLA's up 65-58 and, again, it looks like UCLA might stretch its lead to a comfortable margin. But out of a timeout, Thomas drives and scores, and the lead is back at 65-60. Collison then made one of the biggest shots of the night with Washington tightening its defense, he pulled up from probably 23 feet, and calmly nailed a three-pointer that put the Bruins up 68-60 with about 7:45 left. Yes, there was still plenty of time for Washington to win the game, and they did, in fact, threaten in the last few minutes. But that shot was pivotal, almost signifying that there was no way Collison and the Bruins were going to let this one get away from them and that Collison, this time, would answer everything Washington had.
Even when Dentmon nailed another three, and Mike Roll missed his, you still had the feeling after Collison's shot that UCLA was going to win it.
There were some things that definitely went UCLA's way in this game, too. As we always talk about, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce to your liking, but in this one it figuratively and literally did. A loose ball randomly bounced off the head of a Washington player and out of bounds. There were a number of times a Husky barely stepped out of bounds. UCLA had the luck Thursday night.
And then there was the reffing. You can't chalk it up to luck. Perhaps it can be deemed an improvement in reffing that very few fouls were called in this game. Washington went to the line 43 times in the game in Seattle, but only 10 times in this one. UCLA was called for just three personal fouls in the first half. There were so few stops in play that the refs had to stop the game on their own to get in the second TV timeout.
A game called this way, with so few calls, definitely played into UCLA's favor. Washington makes a living going to the free-throw line, and only taking 10 free throws – and making just four – was a huge factor.
Something, though, that was a bit worrisome was UCLA's inability to, again , stay in front of Washington's guards. Collison struggled all night with Thomas, who got into the lane too often. An even though Jerime Anderson didn't have a great game, there were a few minutes when he and Malcolm Lee were in the game together and they were far more effective at staying in front of Thomas and Dentmon. Lee really frustrated Thomas, in fact. At this point, we have to conclude that Collison's on-ball defense is not as stellar as it's made out to be, and it's worrisome when you have the NCAA tournament and so many quick guards looming.
But in the long-term, it's encouraging that Anderson and Lee are going to potentially provide such good on-ball defense in the future.
It was an entertaining game, too, since it was two teams with different styles, both playing well within their structure. Washington, with Thomas and Dentmon, and Jon Brockman underneath, finally give coach Lorenzo Romar the personnel to play the game he prefers -- loose and open offensively and based off dribble penetration. UCLA, though, in terms of approach, departed some from Howland's strict offensive structure, using the motion offense more. In fact, there was a critical possession with just a few minutes left in which Howland didn't call a play and left to his players to execute the motion.
The win puts UCLA back into the real thick of the Pac-10 race, tied for second with Arizona State and California at 9-4, just a half game behind Washington at 10-4. And you could make the argument that UCLA might have the most favorable schedule left among those four teams, with Washington State at home Saturday, and then the Oregon schools at home with a road trip to the Bay Area in between.
The key point, again, is UCLA being on the road. While not wanting to look past WSU, the key to winning the Pac-10 this season for UCLA will be if it can get out of its away-from-Pauley funk next weekend.