Lights Go On Against Washington

At least, for a game, UCLA played hard and with conviction, and it paid off with a dramatic, buzzer-beating win over Washington, 62-61. Even though we've been down this road before, there were signs that the lights might have come on for the Bruins...

After a week of hearing UCLA players talk about how they were going to play harder, it was nice to see tangible evidence of that on the court. The Bruins played their butts off against Washington Thursday, and won a thriller at the buzzer, 62-61.

The game-ending sequence was a heart stopper. UCLA had the ball down 1 and ran a clear-out for Malcolm Lee. Venoy Overton poked the ball away but Lee got it back and found Michael Roll, who was fouled. Roll stepped up and hit both shots, with the second free-throw bouncing around the rim before going in, giving UCLA a 1-point lead with 7.6 left.

UW inbounded to Overton, and the lefty raced up the right side, split two Bruins and banked in the lay-up with 3.2 seconds left, stunning the Pauley crowd. With UCLA having no timeouts, Mike Roll then showed why he's UCLA's smartest player. Rather than panicking and inbounding to Malcolm Lee right in front of him, he waited and hit Mustafa Abdul-Hamid nearly at half court. Abdul-Hamid caught the ball on the left side, went right to the top of the key and then did something that perhaps is one of the most poised moves in recent memory: He shot-faked, which got Overton in the air, giving Abdul-Hamid space to calmly hit the game winning shot, released with .2 on the clock. There was an electric reaction from the Bruin team, with Roll grinning ear to ear, and Mike Moser leading the bench as it stormed out to congratulate Abdul-Hamid. It was the second time this year he won a game with a buzzer beater, but this was a lot sweeter than the exhibition win over Concordia. It marked a huge win for the Bruins, hopefully one that emphasizes the point that, when you play hard, good things happen.

UCLA jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead, sticking to the 2-3 zone, which was considerably tighter than it had been in previous games. Several times Washington's passes on the interior became turnovers instead of easy lay-ups. Offensively, UCLA was well-prepared for the Huskies very aggressive halfcourt defense, with the Bruins doing a great job on backdoors, back screens and clear-outs, then dumping down to the post. It was an excellent first-half game plan, using Washington's aggressiveness against them. James Keefe started for Reeves Nelson, who was apparently still getting over flu, and both Keefe and Nelson had nice first halves, with Keefe being better defensively at the five and Nelson better offensively, although Nelson did again miss a point-blank lay-up and had another one blocked that he should have dunked. He lacks the explosiveness to finish strong around the basket, having to go up with one hand to get the extension rather than going up for a dunk strong with both hands. Still, he had 9 first-half points and was a big factor. Keefe did a nice job in the zone and made a couple of nice passes.

Tyler Honeycutt had a terrific half, more aggressive looking for his shot, with several nice passes and being very active on the glass. Roll and Lee both had solid halves. Nikola Dragovic was a man of his word; he didn't attempt a three-pointer until under two minutes left in the half, going more aggressively to the basket, and playing better defense in the zone.

The problem UCLA had in the first half was UW came out smoking from three, with Scott Suggs, Elston Turner and Quincy Pondexter nailing several. It was apparent Howland's game plan on defense was to keep Washington's quick guards from penetrating and out of the lane, but that tended to open up easy looks from three, which they were hitting. Isaiah Thomas had a solid first half but nothing spectacular, mostly because he was limited in his dribble penetration. One odd thing: we saw very little full-court pressure from Washington, which you would have figured with Jerime Anderson out with injury and UCLA's ball-handling very limited. Even Washington's man pressure was easily negated by having a big set a screen in the backcourt. Washington led at the half, 41-37, but if you're UCLA you were encouraged; Washington hit six threes in the first half, 6 for 12 overall, with Quincy Pondexter making all three of his attempts (he had a total of 15 points at the half), and you'd have to believe that it couldn't continue the entire game. Add in only 4 first-half points from Roll and UCLA had reason to think this was a game within their reach. If you're UDub, conversely, at halftime you're thinking things will probably loosen up inside in UCLA's zone, with UCLA's history of not defending well in the zone along the baseline. Washington shot 58% in the first half to UCLA's 55%, and the key to the game figured to be which team could continue to knock down shots and which team couldn't, and that depended mostly on whom would get the best quality looks.

The 2nd half was considerably different. While a total of 81points were scored in the first half, only 45 were scored in the second. As expected, it came down to which team stopped making shots, and this time it was Washington. After shooting 58% in the first half, the Huskies were 4 for their first 22 in the 2nd half, which included a four-minute scoreless drought that saw UCLA take the lead. They ended up shooting a miserable 29% in the second half. UW made a change at the half, and started overloading Dragovic's side of the zone every time down, trying to get the short-corner jumpers. For Washington's first possession of the second half it worked; Justin Holiday made the baseline jumper. But the Bruins adjusted to the tactic, repeatedly closing out on the Husky who caught the ball at the short corner, taking away the shot. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, for some reason, kept running the same play and the result was one trip after another in which Washington couldn't get a look in the short corner, then had to rush up shots to beat the shot clock. It was very questionable coaching, and it was obvious that UCLA's Ben Howland had seen what UDub was doing and countered it, but Romar never adjusted.

With the game tied at 56 with 2:20 left, Dragovic missed a wide open three-point attempt that let all the air out of the amped-up Pauley Pavilion crowd. Down at the other end, Washiington finally figured out what UCLA was doing and set a perfect back screen for a skip pass to Pondexter who nailed a three, making it 59-56, the last of Pondexter's 23 points on the night. UCLA came down seeming discombobulated offensively but Nelson stepped up and made a huge double-pump drive, drawing a foul to make it 59-58. Nelson missed the free throw. UCLA had to foul three times to get into the bonus and wound up fouling Isaiah Thomas, the guy Washington wanted at the line, but Thomas was short on the front end of the one-and-one, leading to the final sequence described at the top of the recap.

Another subtle point to the win was Nelson trying to draw a charge on Thomas for the 6th team foul. He didn't get the call, since a foul was called on Roll before Nelson took the charge, but Nelson got a good shot on the smaller Thomas. You could see Thomas was wincing after the collision and it may have been a factor in him missing the free throw later.

It was a breakout-type game for Honeycutt, finishing with 10 points, 8 boards, 4 assists and two blocks, one huge one on Thomas that should have been an offensive foul. Honeycutt really stepped it up today, clearly more comfortable with the ball in his hand on offense and creating off the dribble, being a huge factor in the win. It's easy to see how good Honeycutt could be with just reasonable development. <-p> Thomas did a good job on Roll, holding him to 8 points and only 7 shot attempts. In fact, it was a match-up UCLA didn't exploit enough since Thomas was unable physically to stay with Roll and fouled him a couple of times when Roll put the ball on floor. The Bruin senior came up huge when it counted, though, hitting the big free throws and then making the smart decision for the inbound on the last play, throwing the ball to half-court to an open Abdul-Hamid rather than to a guarded Lee.

Sometimes in sports very good things happen. Not just that a certain team wins, or a certain player becomes a champion. But that a person who is so deserving gets some glory. That's the case with Abdul-Hamid, a kid who walked on at UCLA, and has put in more work than any scholarship player on the team, and carries a 3.8 GPA. For all the long hours toiling in a deserted gym alone, with no prospect at any significant playing time, there isn't anything better than seeing all the good things – like hard work, character and perserverance – pay off. In a day when the image of the "student-athlete" is tarnished, when college players only care about getting to the NBA as fast as they can, through as many short cuts as they can find, it's incredible that a young man like Abdul-Hamid even still exists.

For UCLA, hopefully this game is one of those lights-go-on moments for the team. In terms of improvement, the zone defense has improved considerably and gives UCLA some hope that it will be able to defend the remainder of its opponents far better than it did up to this point. It held a Washington team that was averaging 80 points per game to 62. The zone took away much of Washington's inside game and kept its guards from penetrating; Washington was forced to put up 19 threes, going 1-7 from three in the 2nd half.

Offensively, the Bruins seemed to value every possession more in this game, limiting unforced turnovers. Dragovic, scoring 11 points, mostly in the paint, and being a much better cog in the zone, wasn't a liability. You could see a clear difference with Dragovic looking to get inside. As a whole, the team was much more aggressive pounding the ball inside against Washington. It generated fouls and UCLA went to the line – more than Washington, the team that leads the league in drawing fouls and free-throw attempts. UCLA shot 26 free throws to Washington's 12, and this wasn't just home cookin'. UCLA made a conscious effort to get the ball inside, taking only 9 three pointers in the game. And if Honeycutt continues to emerge offensively it gives the Bruins another offensive dimension.

Hopefully it was a lights-go-on-moment in terms of the team realizing that, if you play hard and execute at both ends, you can be in most games this year in the Pac 10.


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