Perhaps the Bruins were looking past Stanford for the big Cal game on Saturday. Regardless, they were just good enough when they had to be against the Cardinal.
It wasn't easy but UCLA moved to 6-4 and currently into a four-way tie for the Pac-10 conference lead by holding off Stanford, doing it with a defensive adjustment, an 11-0 run and clutch foul shooting down the stretch.
But for most of the game, UCLA played poorly and without energy. It's 2-3 zone up until this game had made the primary different in UCLA's turn-around of winning four of its last five games. But the zone was soft and slow-reacting against the Cardinal, who over-loaded one side and then found the soft spots with ball movement.
Stanford got an incredible effort from senior Landry Fields, who poured in 35 points and had double digit rebounds. UCLA managed to hold Jeremy Green, the nemesis of UCLA's first meeting with the Cardinal, somewhat in check. The sophomore guard had 18 points but was only 6-of-17 from the field, including a huge missed three-pointer when Stanford was down three points late in the game that would have tied it.
For UCLA, the scoring balance was terrific, with 18 points from Reeves Nelson, 16 from Michael Roll, 15 from Nikola Dragovic and 12 from Tyler Honeycutt, who had a brilliant all-around game, just 2 assists short of a triple-double (not to mention multiple blocks and steals). Malcolm Lee had only 8 points but hit two huge free throws late and did a nice job on Green when UCLA switched to a man-to-man. The switch seems to throw off Stanford for a few minutes, and that led to an 11-0 UCLA run that finally gave the Bruins the lead after trailing for most of the game. Included in it were two consecutive plays where UCLA ran a second defender at Fields to help Dragovic, which forced a turnover. Stanford eventually adjusted and cleared out for Fields or Green, who kept Stanford in it with repeated moves off the dribble for big shots. UCLA just couldn't stop Fields; he was easily the best player on the court and kept Stanford close. Seniors Dragovic and Roll each hit two huge free throws in crunch time to preserve the lead.
The game was a chess match between the coaches. UCLA started off playing zone exclusively, ignoring point guard Jarrett Mann and daring him to shoot, which he did. He started off by hitting a three-pointer, and even though he had open looks for most of the night he finished with only 7 points, so essentially UCLA's strategy on worked. Well, at least half of the strategy – that is, take away Fields and Green and make someone like Mann beat you. UCLA allowed Mann to try to beat them but didn't exactly take away Fields and Green. Howland, in his press conference this week, said that UCLA had to make sure it knew where Fields and Green were in the zone at all times, but it certainly didn't look like the Bruins recognized them as they continually got wide-open looks. Stanford's approach was obvious: get Fields the ball at the free-throw line in the middle of the zone, or overload Dragovic's side of the zone and try to get a shot for Fields or Green. Three times in the game Dragovic inexplicably took a step back, daring Fields or Green to take the three-pointer, and Fields and Green drained them. It was obvious Stanford was attacking Dragovic, it made no sense for him to step back and give Fields or Green the open shot. Up until the last few minutes of the game, Dragovic was a complete liability on both sides of the court, taking bad shots, and turning over the ball when jumping to pass or having it stripped out of his hands. But Dragovic, despite his lapses, did step up when it was needed to make free throws, converting 6 for 6 from the line in the game. Obviously, the whole conference will be doing the same thing against UCLA's zone – working Dragovic's side -- so we'll see how Howland attempts to compensate.
UCLA trailed 32-29 at the half, largely because of Fields' 15 points and UCLA settling for too many jumpers. UCLA missed several point-blank shots early on, including a lefty lay-up by James Keefe and a point-blank unguarded lay-up by Roll. Roll got hot late in the half, nailing three consecutive three-pointers. Nelson got off to a hot start but picked up 2 fouls, which played a big role in Stanford leading at the half.
In the second half, Stanford simply couldn't guard Nelson, who had 14 second-half points on 7-for-10 shooting overall. Again, his foul shooting was an Achilles Heel, going just 4-for-8 from the line. But Nelson had a dazzling sequence in the second half with a no-look pass to Lee for a lay-up, a terrific block on the other end, and then an offensive board and finger roll put-back that brought the crowd to its feet. His 14 second-half points fueled a big offensive outburst for the Bruins of a total of 48 points in the second half, their most in a half this season. It's clear that UCLA's offense needs to go inside-out, with Nelson touching the ball, especially against a team like Stanford that doesn't have much interior defense.
Roll also had a very good game overall. He seemingly was in one of those zones where it looks like he could throw up the ball blind-folded and behind his back and it would go in. He finished 4-for-5 from three, but also with 5 great assists. When he and Honeycutt are working out of the motion offense with the opportunity to find their teammates, with their passing ability, it seems UCLA's offense is at its best.
Stanford got close in the second half by going to a zone, trying to contain Nelson inside cut off passing lanes for Honeycutt, and it worked for enough UCLA possessions that it kept the Cardinal within striking distance. The Bruins, however, remained poised, made the plays, and the free throws, down the stretch to hold on to the win.
Honeycutt was brilliant, quite simply the best UCLA player on the court, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds , 8 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. It seemed like every time UCLA needed a bucket it came as the result of a feed from Honeycutt. At one point toward the end of the first half, Honeycutt was directly responsible for the vast majority of UCLA's scoring, either putting the ball in the basket himself or assisting a teammate. With his passing impacting the game so much, there were times in this game when he didn't touch it enough. What's particularly exciting is that Honeycutt's potential seems limitless; his upside is considerable, given that he has the body that can clearly get much bigger and stronger. You can see his confidence building with every outing, and there are still aspects of his game he hasn't even unveiled really; he can create off the dribble, and he has a very clever scoring game around the basket. As he gains confidence he'll start going to those aspects of his offense more. He had the offensive highlight of the night, where Lee found him cutting and he made a twisting, double-pump up-and-under. UCLA hasn't had a triple-double since 1995 (both Jelani McCoy and Toby Bailey did it in that year), and his near-triple-double is clear evidence of the talent that is oozing out of him.
The continued improvement of freshmen Nelson and Honeycutt has to give UCLA fans hope for the rest of the season and the future. Nelson continued to show toughness; in one sequence Fields appeared to be incensed about two turnovers and came flying right over Nelson's back trying to get a tip-in, but it missed, and there no foul was called, and Nelson ended up laying on his back on the baseline. We never saw a TV replay, but it looked like Fields intentionally stepped over Nelson rather than just running around him and Nelson responded by intentionally sticking his foot up and tripping Fields. Stanford's coach, Johnny Dawkins, immediately came off the Stanford bench calling for a foul on Nelson but, as they had done all game, the refs let them play and nothing was called. Down on the other end Fields clobbered Dragovic, which got him riled up. It's good to see physical play from UCLA, and a sense that they're not going to back down, and it seems like Nelson's toughness and semi-punk attitude sets that tone.
The Bruins left the court 6-4 and tied for first place in the Pac 10, thanks to USC beating Cal and Washington beating Arizona. Who would have thought after such a horrible start that an 11-11 UCLA team would be tied for first in the conference ten games into the Pac 10 season?
Next up for the first-place Bruins is Cal on Saturday. You can only hope that the Stanford game was, indeed, a matter of the Bruins looking past the Cardinal for the Bears, and that UCLA won't come out flat like they did against Stanford. The game could, depending on some other outcomes, be for sole possession of the conference lead.