UCLA Ends Season with Frustration

UCLA ends it season with a thud, losing to Cal in the semi-final of the conference tournament, 85-72, in a game they clearly had a chance to win, if not for some of the season-long concerns coming back to haunt them...

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-- Dylan Thomas

While that Dylan Thomas poem is about death, it seemed applicable to the way UCLA fans probably felt about how the 2009-2010 season ended Friday when UCLA lost to Cal in the semi-final of the conference tournament, 85-72.

Bruin fans, after watching the game, almost assuredly didn't go "gentle into that good night" when leaving the Staples Center, but were probably bitching as they walked out to their cars, enraged by how UCLA lost this game.

The Bruins led for the entire first half and then lost the game in the first 6 minutes of the second half. And everyone in the building knew why.

Mike Roll, UCLA's MVP of the season, had 16 points in the first half and was spectacular in the first 20 minutes. Cal Coach Mike Montgomery came out in the second half and had his defense attempt to clamp down on Roll, denying him the ball and any decent looks. It worked well, at least for the next 10 minutes or so of the game.

So, how does UCLA counterpunch? It goes to its #2 scoring option, Nikola Dragovic. And that's not a joke. Dragovic is UCLA's #2 scoring option. In the first 20 seconds, Dragovic launched an ill-advised three, and over the course of the next 7 minutes succeeded in shooting UCLA out of the game. Of the first 8 shots UCLA took in the first half, Dragovic was responsible for five of them, and he went 1 for 5, hitting one three pointer while missing badly on others, including throwing up an air ball. After he missed the air ball, he came right back on the next possession and took a bad, quick three. He also mixed in a sloppy turnover, too. UCLA went from being up 39-35 at the half to, after Dragovic's display of taking the team on his shoulders, finding itself down 52-44, after Cal's 17-4 run.

The game was successfully killed at that point and the season put out of its misery.

Yes, we know that we've probably written too much about Dragovic over the course of the season, and we, again, went into this game swearing we wouldn't do it again. But it's difficult to avoid, and it would be blatantly remiss if, in writing an analysis of the game, that we didn't write about Dragovic. Dragovic ended the game on 3-of-12 shooting, with two of his makes being lay-ups, and 1-for-8 shooting from three.

As we've written before, you can't necessarily blame Dragovic. He is what he is. You know what you're getting with him when you put him out on the floor. The issue is why Howland chooses to put him on the floor. A UCLA official came up to me this season and tried to offer some sort of explanation, saying: "He's playing the guys he thinks will help him win." Exactly. That's the issue. Why Howland believes that Dragovic could help him win consistently is inexplicable. Yes, at this point in the season, looking down that bench, there isn't much else. True. But it's not a mater of Howland sending Dragovic in there with the instruction, "Be solid, don't hurt us." He's sending Dragovic out there with a complete green light. And sending UCLA to its death. Dragovic shot 29% from three for the season. Wow. He's a career 32% shooter from three. That's the guy whose shoulders Howland is putting the fate of the game. And of course, not to mention, that Dragovic is absolutely the worst defensive starter to play at UCLA since Howland arrived in Westwood.

It's mind-boggling. Inexplicable. The best we can come up with is that Howland, being such a guy of statistics and playing the odds, probably trusts in how Dragovic shoots in practice and believes that it's just a matter of time until that manifests itself in the game. It happened last season, if you remember: Dragovic was shooting horribly for the first half of the season and then caught fire in Pac-10 play. Howland, you can bet, decided to ride that horse all the way to the finish line, hoping he'd get a last kick out him in the home stretch.

But the nag died before reaching the finish. As did the season.

The second big factor in the game was Cal, in the second half, driving to the basket more aggressively and not settling for jumpers. UCLA played a man-to-man defense exclusively for the entire first half, but Cal seemingly was asleep in realizing that, when UCLA goes to a man, it's time to go to dribble penetration. It was just a matter of time until Cal and Montomery woke up. And it should have been a matter of time before UCLA realized Montgomery would wake up and the Bruins should counter punch the dribble penetration. The way you would do it is with your post player anticipating dribble penetration and stepping over with help defense to cut off the lane. But, again inexplicably, UCLA's post players didn't step in, but stepped back, without a hand up, and allowed the best dribble penetrator in the Pac-10, Jerome Randle, free reign in the paint. It's not fair to point to UCLA's guards, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee, for not being able to stay in front of him. Randle, for one, is very quick and there aren't many who can stay with him defensively, while also UCLA would have to know that Anderson and not even Lee could stay with Randle. Wouldn't they? It was clear that the game plan didn't call for UCLA's posts to step in and cut off dribble penetration, because not one of them did it, and Howland clearly wasn't upset that Randle and the rest of the Cal guards were doing it without any help from UCLA's bigs. It seems that Howland opted to try to take away Cal's perimeter shooting instead. Picking your poison I guess. But maybe after the fourth or fifth time when a Cal guard penetrated and Reeves Nelson stepped back and out of his way, without a hand up, there might be an appropriate adjustment. It also, too, is a matter that Nelson and Dragovic are very poor post defenders, both very slow to rotate over and at least get a hand up.

Cal shot 70% in the second half because it had so many lay-ups and 60% for the game.

Probably the third biggest factor that contributed to UCLA losing this game was the referee Chris Rastatter. He's the one with the crew cut that could be the shorter, shallow-end-of-the-gene-pool twin brother of Detlef Shrempf. The officiating team, overall, did a poor job in calling the game, but Rastatter was particularly bad, calling many ticky-tack fouls against UCLA, not calling many more blatant fouls against Cal, missing many out-of-bounds calls, and missing a good number of Cal travels right in front of him. There was also the bad no-call when, in the last few minutes with UCLA trying to make a push and applying some fullcourt pressure, Jorge Gutierrez stepped about a foot out of bounds – right in front of Rastatter – and while everyone in the building saw it, he didn't. In one sequence with about 2 minutes to go and UCLA making a late push, Tyler Honeycutt pulled down an offensive rebound, a Cal player barely got a hand on it, and he called a quick tie-up, with the ball awarded to Cal. On the other end of the floor, Gutierrez traveled blatantly, taking not just three steps but five, but Rastattter looked on without blowing the whistle and Cal scored. While, of course, it was a longshot that UCLA could pull out the game, that sequence of horrible officiating by Rastatter pretty much iced it for Cal.

It's very rare that we'd write about officiating being a factor in a game, but the performance by Rastatter was so blatant it had to be pointed out.

Two players carried UCLA for most of the game. Jerime Anderson had one of his best games as a Bruin, finishing with 15 points, hitting 2 clutch threes and dishing out four assists against 1 turnover. While he struggled to stay in front of Randle, as we said, just about anyone would. And he's still shaky on his handle bringing up the ball. But in the half-court, he was terrific, showing his ability to take defenders off the dribble with a very quick jab step, and then showing confidence and poise shooting the ball while also flashing his ability to find his teammates with passes. If Anderson had played like this for a majority of the season, UCLA might have had a drastically different year. But, on the other hand, it's something hopefully for Anderson to build on for next season.

It was fitting that, in his last game wearing a UCLA uniform, Mike Roll went over 1,000 points for his career and scored a career-high 27. His stat line is impressive: 8-for-15 from the field, 4-for-8 from three, 7-of-8 from the free-throw line, with 27 points, 5 rebounds and four assists against 0 turnovers. And that doesn't even reflect many of the little things he did in this game – the extra pass, the precision in executing the offense, his vision, good defense, etc. Roll, in a very disappointing season for UCLA, kept playing his ass off. While some of his teammates looked like they packed it in, he kept playing, trying to lift this UCLA team, first, to a winning record and then to an improbable NCAA bid by winning the tournament championship. The effort failed, but he proved that he was one of the most admirable Bruins in recent memory. It's easy to look like a hero when your team is going to Final Fours. It's another to play like a hero when your team is 14-18.

So, the season doesn't go "gentle into that good night" for Bruins fans, but more appropriately ends with a tremendous thud. A fitting thud on a dud of a season. And the last game only reinforced some of the concerns about the program.

But if we were ever willing to forget a season and start over, this would be the time.

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