The victory breathed a little bit of life into a UCLA season that was about to go on life support.
When Mike Roll hit the game-winning basket with 1.9 seconds left in overtime, it was a little unbelievable. The way the season had been going it didn't feel like a last-second win over the team that is considered one of the best two in the conference – on their home floor – was the type of thing that was in the cards for UCLA. When the ball bounced to Roll and he went up for that off-balance 15-footer, it was surreal when it went in.
Watching the sideline, with the players smiling and jumping up and down, arm in arm, it was a great win for the team, for the players who haven't probably been enjoying themselves much so far this season.
In analyzing the game, we have to come back down to earth a bit, however. It was a mostly a mess of a game for both teams, with UCLA essentially winning it over a stretch of a few minutes in the middle of the second half in which they converted most of their offensive possessions while Cal was offensively inept. From about 13 minutes left in the game to about 7 minutes, the score went from 48-39 to 56-56, with UCLA making a 17-8 run.
You'd really like to attribute Cal's scoring drought to an improved UCLA defense, but that wasn't the case. UCLA's defense, which was almost entirely zone during that stretch, was porous; it was just a matter of Cal attempting out-of-control drives, not able to make open shots or fumbling the ball away.
Give UCLA credit for staying composed on the offensive end and executing well down that stretch. They went inside and outside, with Roll and Nikola Dragovic each hitting big shots from the outside, and Reeves Nelson forcing the ball inside to draw fouls.
It's something we can say pretty confidently about this team: Offensively they're fine. Seriously. They're averaging 68.9 points per game, which is more than Howland's first Final Four team averaged (67.7). It can sometimes look a little messy and sloppy offensively, but all in all, the offense of this year's team, with its personnel, has been productive and fairly efficient. In fact, if Dragovic weren't shooting 29% from the three-point line, since a great deal of Howland's offense is designed to get him open looks, you could probably say that the offense has been pretty good.
If UCLA's defense and rebounding were even just passable, the Bruins would probably have a 10-5 record and most UCLA fans would be saying they're just about what we expected this season.
This year's team is allowing opponents to score an average of 69 points per game. Last year, UCLA allowed 64 points per game; in 2007-2008, 59 points; in 2006-2007, 59 points; and in 2005-2006, 58.7 points.
This is the clearest indication of what constitutes a good UCLA team under Howland. It's not the offense, it's the defense. His three Final Four teams allowed 59 points or less per game, while last year's team, which didn't make it past the second round of the NCAA tournament, allowed 64 points per game, and this year's team is at the 69-point clip.
It's about defense, stupid.
Some fans are pointing to UCLA winning this game because Dragovic shot well, scoring 18 points and going 4 for 9 for three. Well, then, following that logic, you'd have to make the point that Dragovic is also responsible for UCLA's 8 losses because of how poorly he shot in those games.
But it's not about Dragovic's offense. It's about defense, and for every positive play he makes offensively, there are at least two poor defensive plays that counteract anything he does well on the offensive end. The Cal game was one of Dragovic's worst defensive performances ever, and that's saying something. He was horrendous defensively, both in the zone and in the occasional man defense. In the zone, on his side in the 2-3, Cal realized early on that Dragovic 1) had no idea what he was supposed to be doing and 2) couldn't do it when he did know. Dragovic gave up basket after basket on his side of the zone, seemingly so asleep that he looked like he was playing man, stepping out on a guy without the ball, leaving the middle open enough to drive a Hummer through it. He was physically pushed out of the lane many times, and Cal would find the man in the paint for easy lay-ups. Cal kept going back to Dragovic's side of the zone to exploit him, time after time, and it basically was what allowed Cal to build a 10-point lead for a good portion of the game while they were shooting so poorly. Cal, a team that averaged 48% from the field and 39% from three coming into this game, averaged 44% and 11% in this game. And, again, it wasn't because of UCLA's defense; Cal had open looks. And Cal's Mike Montgomery, recognizing his team couldn't shoot, also recognized the extreme soft spot in UCLA's zone – on Dragovic's side of the floor – and he kept going back to it to try to get easy baskets for his team that was struggling to shoot.
In fact, during that UCLA run in the middle of the second half, Cal had a number of wide-open looks – on Dragovic's side of the zone – that they clanked. On one possession, Amonde Omoke again pushed Dragovic out of the way, was passed the ball for an easy lay-up but fumbled the pass. Combine that with a few ill-conceived Jerome Randle drives to the basket and you have UCLA's "defensive stand," with a great deal of help from Cal's ineptitude on offense.
Bottom line: This team needs to find some defense. Howland is attempting to do it by playing zone and perhaps the zone will improve – because it was pretty bad in this game. And it wasn't just Dragovic being bad in it, either. It was clear that Howland wanted to extend his guards in the zone to limit Cal, a very good three-point shooting team, from getting open threes, and perhaps concede ground in the paint. Even though Cal didn't shoot well from three, it really, though, had nothing to do with UCLA's defense. And then UCLA was so extended, it did allow a huge amount of points in the paint. Howland, I guess, was picking his poison, but hopefully the zone will be far more compact in the future and not allow so much space in the paint against the rest of the Pac-10.
Roll had a very good game, scoring a game-leading 19 points, with 6 assists (against 3 turnovers), and playing pretty well defensively in the zone. And now, please, let's put to bed the notion that he's not a clutch shooter.
Nelson also was critical in this game, supplying 15 points from muscle and hard work inside. He's been very good, for a freshman, in catching the ball in the paint, not panicking, and making a move to the basket. He's been very good at drawing fouls and if he can get to the point where he shoots just 70% from the free-throw line he will truly be a serious inside threat for the Bruins the rest of the way this season.
With Nelson asserting himself offensively, he seems like he doesn't have as much energy for rebounding, and the new starter, Tyler Honeycutt, picked up the slack, getting a game-high 10 boards. It's clear how talented Honeycutt is, he just has to get some confidence offensively, and the only way to do that is to shoot the ball. Come on, Tyler, Dragovic keeps shooting when he can't make a shot, why not you?
UCLA actually out-rebounded Cal, 35-34, and Honeycutt was the main reason.
It was a bit encouraging that UCLA beat Cal with Malcolm Lee, its leading scorer, having a bad night, scoring just 6 points on 1-of-7 shooting. Lee took over the bulk of the point guard duties, and perhaps having that extra responsibility was a bit too much for him, at least in his first attempt. He also was hindered by cramps again, and was a warrior in trying to play while he could barely move.
Anderson had a kind of typical game for him. He made some foolish decisions, but then, on the other hand, created some nice opportunities for his teammates. He also hit two big three-pointers at critical times in the game and finished with 11 points. In this game, the team executed much better with him on the court, missing his passing ability when Lee is running the point.
With Honeycutt starting and getting more minutes (29 in this one), UCLA's rebounding will improve.
And, as we said, UCLA's offense is fine.
If UCLA is going to make a run in the second half of the season, it's going to be all about the defense.