For their final three regular season games, UCLA takes on the three best teams in the Pac-10 (by overall record) other than themselves.
Before having to run that gauntlet, however, the Bruins were seemingly given a break, as they had the chance to play at home against the last place team in the conference (Arizona State). The ASU game appeared to be an easy victory to help the Bruins set up for their grueling task ahead to end the season.
One problem, however. Ten minutes into the game, the Bruins were losing to the Sun Devils 21-9.
Suffice it to say, things were not looking good. Getting into a hole early is nothing new for the Bruins, as they seem to do that in most every game. But against the WORST team in the conference? Really?
The interesting thing about this particular early hole, however, is that for once it wasn’t due to turnovers. UCLA has fallen behind in many games due to a propensity to carelessly hand the ball over in the first half, but this was a different story. (In fact, UCLA didn’t turn the ball over a single time in the first ten minutes, yet still fell into a 12-point deficit). No, it was everything else that was the problem this time: a combination of horrendous shooting (2-of-16) and a sieve-like defense that allowed ASU to get whatever they wanted.
Now, while getting into an early first half deficit is a common habit for the Bruins, luckily for them, climbing OUT of that hole in a big way is one also. And against Arizona State, that’s exactly what happened. The Bruins apparently flipped a switch, taking advantage of turnovers and front court play to go on a 14-0 run to take the lead 23-21. A 30-8 run to end the half put the Bruins up 39-29 at the break, and the game had shifted entirely.
In the second, the Bruins continued to dominate play and maintained a double digit lead throughout the final 18 minutes. The Bruins continuously put pressure on the Sun Devils and ensured that the game ended in a rout, 71-53….making one wonder just how in the heck this same team allowed the score to become 21-9 in the first place.
Other game notes:
- For what seems like the first time in a great while, UCLA actually won the turnover margin. UCLA had 8 turnovers (5 of which came in the second half after the game was already well in hand) compared to 16 for ASU. The turnovers were absolutely key to the 14-0 run in the first half, with an array of steals and blocks leading to easy Bruin fastbreak buckets on the other end.
- The other key to erasing the deficit was the fact that ten minutes into the game, Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith apparently realized for the first time that ASU’s tallest rotation player was only 6’7. After allowing the diminutive Sun Devils to roll past them to the bucket easily for the first ten minutes, Nelson and Smith suddenly began to play aggressively and exploit the size difference, scoring in the paint and blocking shots seemingly at will. They kept this up in the second half, and each of them notched 12 points and 3 blocks apiece, with Nelson getting a double-double with 12 rebounds.
- Lazeric Jones had the best game of the night, a double double with 10 points and 10 assists to go with 3 steals and 0 turnovers. Jones was finding good looks for his teammates all night long and showed good court awareness, and his ability to get his hands into the lane for a steal and then finding an open teammate on the fastbreak helped spur the 14-0 run. We’ve seen this Jones before early in the season, but he’s been hampered by a wrist injury for much of conference play and not nearly as effective. If he can continue his strong performance without being bothered, UCLA could become much more dangerous.
- Howland stated that he wanted to involve Tyler Lamb more after him only playing 3 minutes in the loss against Cal days earlier. Against ASU, Lamb ended up with 4 points in 10 minutes, but played extremely effectively and contributed to the 14-0 run.
- Offensively, UCLA employed a balanced attack in this game – five players were in double digits, and no one had more than 16. The high man, Malcolm Lee, scored most of his points early as the only effective weapon for much of the first part of the first half.
A few miles up the freeway, UCLA got an assist from its crosstown rivals, as USC pulled a big 65-57 upset of first place Arizona. Only one game stands between UCLA and a share of first place in the conference, but the 10th ranked Wildcats are coming to town on Saturday with a chip on their shoulder after having already lost once in Los Angeles. Nelson and Smith will have their hands full against surefire conference player of the year Derrick Williams, and their ability to minimize his effectiveness in the post will be key if UCLA hopes to pull the upset. As if UCLA needed any more motivation, the game on Saturday will be the last game in Pauley Pavilion before the internal renovations begin next year.*
(*Unless the Bruins lose out, miss the NCAA tournament and end up hosting an NIT game. I think we can all agree an NIT game would probably not be a very fitting farewell to the historic venue.)
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