But then reality set in, Cal started playing better, UCLA ran out of gas and eventually succumbed, 72-58.
For those ten minutes, UCLA was playing its best basketball of the year, and images of first place in the Pac-10 were dancing around Bruin heads. The Bruins came out smoking behind Mike Roll's shooting and a very active zone defense and built a big lead by as much as 14 points. With about 10 minutes left in the half UCLA led 24-13, and then the wheels fell off the wagon and Cal finished the half on a 24-6 run to lead 37-30 at the half.
The game completely flipped. Cal's Theo Robertson started finding space and making shots, Cal got hot from three, and the Bears halfcourt defense completely stifled the UCLA offense as the Bruins often struggled to get a shot off, let alone score. Markuri Sanders-Frison was a huge factor in the turn-around, being very physical rebounding the ball and his screening (many of them moving), which created a lot of open looks for Cal shooters. It was like someone pushed a button and Cal's light went green and UCLA's went red.
For the Bruins, after the hot start from Roll, UCLA really had nowhere to go on offense once he went to the bench and cooled off. Reeves Nelson had a tough first half with 2 points and 2 fouls, appearing to be rushing the entire half at both ends. He was caught gambling several times on defense. Nikola Dragovic took two charges but otherwise had a tough halfm with 2 points, missing all 5 of his shots, the last one a badly forced three-pointer with 33 seconds in the half and plenty of tme on the shot clock that led to another easy Cal score. UCLA had come out hot, making a bunch of jump shots, but once the shots stopped falling and Cal stopped turning the ball over, the Bruins just couldn't score. The zone defense that had been so effective early at turning over Caland getting the Bruins in transition suddenly got spread out and couldn't contain the Cal shooters.
Cal picked up in the 2nd half where they left off and quickly built the lead to 12 as the Bruins continued to struggle to score. Cal did a terrific job spreading out the zone, finding the open man, and converting. It also seemed every time UCLA got a stop, Cal would somehow get the offensive rebound, or when it looked like UCLA would get a steal, the ball would somehow bounce into a Bear's hands.
UCLA mounted a comeback when Ben Howland pulled Dragovic for Jerime Anderson, going with a smaller lineup that had Tyler Honeycutt playing power forward and Michael Roll the small forward spot. The zone was quicker and more active and the Bruins cut the lead as close as 5. Then the Achilles Heel was exposed, as the Bruins' inability to make free throws killed the run. UCLA started off 8-8 on free throws for the game, but then made only 2 of the next 8, including 3 misses by Dragovic, 2 by Nelson and one by Honeycutt. Cal methodically worked the clock, got good shots and made them, and built the lead as big as 17 before ultimately winning by the final of 72-58.
Robertson and Patrick Christopher led Cal with 20 points each and Jerome Randle chipped in with 14 points and 7 assists. For the Bruins, Roll led the way with 22 but he was the only UCLA player in double figures. Honeycutt finished with 9 points 6 boards and 2 assists but was forcing things a bit and had 4 turnovers. Dragovic had one of his worst games of the season, not only showing poorly statistically (7 points on 1-of-9 shooting from the floor and only 3 rebounds) but being a big liability defensively. Malcolm Lee had 7 points and 2 assists against just 5 turnovers, as it becomes clearer with every game that Lee's offensive production is really being hurt by playing point ghuard. Right now UCLA doesn't have a better option but Lee's scoring has been cut in half by the position move, and Saturday was his 5th consecutive game in single digits, averaging just 7 PPG over those 5 games. Nelson had his worst game in quite awhile, too, with only 6 points and 2 rebounds, being clearly out-played by Sanders-Frison, who is one of the few bigs in the Pac 10 strong enough to bang with Nelson.
There were a few things to conclude watching this game. First, the turnaround was more Cal – which is clearly a better team – playing quite a bit better rather than UCLA playing so much worse. Sure, UCLA struggled after that magical 10 minutes, but it was more a matter of Cal starting to actually play after coming out very flat.
This was a game where Howland, again, tried to ride Dragovic, seemingly hoping that he'd have one of his late-game spurts, which never materialized. Dragovic playing so many minutes (averaging 32 per game on the season) can't even be rationalized by the Bruin stat geeks, since he's averaging 38% from the field and 30% from three. In the last three games he's 2 of 12 from three, and he's been trying to manufacture points through post-ups and drawing fouls. But even his free-throw shooting failed him in this one. His defense, still, even in the zone, is the Bruin main defensive liability. Again, it's very tired to repeat, but it has to be said that it's inexplicable Howland is playing Dragovic so much. In this game, Howland did finally bench Dragovic and put Honeycutt at the four, which elicited the nice, second-half run. But you can expect that to be just a one-game semi-benching; expect Howland to go right back to riding the Dragovic horse for the remainder of the season. And at this point, so deep into the season, it wouldn't actually be fair to, say, get Brendan Lane on the court for significant minutes since he hasn't played all season. As we've said all season (and wrote an entire article about), Howland's choice of playing Dragovic -- a guy who least epitomizes Ben Ball -- so much this season is the one truly inexplicable aspect of his tenure at UCLA.
A guy who does epitomize Ben Ball, Nelson, was exposed a bit against Sanders-Frison. Nelson, at about 6-7 and a strong 225, can bull around smaller posts, but will struggle against a big body like Sanders-Frison. And Sanders-Frison, who is only about 6-7 himself (but considerably wide), isn't even an elite big. Nelson has had a great freshman year; filling in so effectively at the five when Drew Gordon left the program was, perhaps, along with the development of Honeycutt, what gave the Bruins any breath of hope this season. The long-term issue for Nelson will be whether he can develop a game that can translate into playing the power forward position at UCLA.
The Lee at-point-guard experiment might have run its course. Admittedly, it was a valid attempt, since UCLA was so vulnerable because of the lack of play from the point guard position earlier in the season. But at this point, Lee is struggling at point guard offensively. He's not a natural at the position. And with UCLA now in a zone most of the time defensively, he's not needed as much to provide on-ball pressure to the opposing point guard. Lee needs to play the shooting guard spot and be able to create more off the dribble rather than trying to set up his teammates as a point.
It seems like there are many natural indications that UCLA could be better at this stage -- now that they're playing zone -- with Anderson and/or Mustafa Abdul-Hamid at the point, Lee at the two, Roll at the three, Honeycutt at the four and Nelson at the five. But we think it's unlikely that's going to happen.
With both Arizona and Arizona state losing – to Washington State and Washington, respectively -- Cal took over sole possession of first place at 7-4. UCLA falls to 6-5 and will look to regroup before the rematch with USC next Sunday at the Galen Center. UCLA was pummeled by USC the first time around, losing by 21 at Pauley Pavillion, so you'd only hope that the Bruins would be really fired up for the rematch.