Trapani, with a few seconds left in the game, had the ball fall out of the sky and into his hands, as if it were an assist from Coach himself.
If you're a spiritual person, you might believe that Coach was actually in the building Saturday, because UCLA played like they were possessed by Wooden's spirit.
The Bruins played their best game of the season – no question – in dominating the Wildcats. Again, you couldn't have written the script any hokier, that for a team which has struggled with its effort and focus all year long to put it so together in the biggest game of the year, which also happens to be the last game in old Pauley.
As we've maintained all season, UCLA's defense will take this team as far as it can go, and if you watched the game Saturday, it would seem the defense has the capability of taking the team a good distance. It was an excellent defensive performance, holding Arizona to 31% shooting from the field for the game, and 25% in the second half. If you took a typical game from earlier in the year and held it up to compare it to this one, it'd look like a different defensive team, even though it was all the same guys in the uniforms.
Perhaps it was the throwback uniforms that got them to play with some throwback intensity. You know Ben Howland, who is superstitious, is going to bring out those uniforms again before the season is over.
You do have to say one slightly cynical thing about the defensive performance, too, which you have to mention because it's dead on: It's really amazing how well this team can play defense when they actually try, huh?
There were two guys who made all the difference in the game defensively, and that was Reeves Nelson and Anthony Stover. See, now this is why you can't be a stats scout. If you were just looking at a box score, you could immediately understand why Nelson was the player of the game, scoring 27 points and hauling in 16 boards. But why would you even consider giving the honor of difference-maker to Stover, whose stat line is modest (except for, perhaps, that big "4" in the blocks column)? If you watch the game again you'll see that Stover was a huge influence in every one of his 18 minutes played, blocking or altering just about every shot near him, making it near-impossible for any Wildcat to score around the basket. But it wasn't just his shot-blocking; Stover is, by far, the best screen hedger of any big man on the team, and perhaps the best that Howland has ever had. His hedges are so good it completely disrupts the opposing team's offensive flow, to the point they have to pretty much re-start their offense. See, now, these are the kind of little things that don't show up on a stat sheet – hedging and altering shots – that make a huge impact on a game. The players on the court, too, aren't robots, they have emotions, so that kind of defensive effort and performance by one of their teammates is infectious. Every time Stover is on the court it's not coincidental that his teammates step up their defense.
Seriously, perhaps the most exciting thing about this season is imagining what Stover, who is only a redshirt freshman, is going to be like by the time he's a senior. Hopefully Howland will have him teaching a seminar to incoming bigs about how to hedge.
The story of Nelson insisting to Howland that he wants to defend Arizona's All-American, Derrick Williams, is also the stuff of a Hollywood script. It seemed pretty no-brainer anyway, after Nelson proved how good of a post defender he could be since he shut down USC's Nikola Vukevic. It was a mistake, as Howland later admitted in his post-game comments, that he left Josh Smith on Williams at the beginning of the game, which resulted in Smith quickly picking up his second foul. You could see Howland cussing at himself on the bench, and we were with you, coach.
UCLA doubled Williams sometimes, and it was generally effective, and contributed to Williams having a poor game offensively, scoring a quiet 15 points. But William being pretty much an offensive non-factor in this game was almost solely due to Nelson's defensive performance. Nelson was excellent, and it was particularly noteworthy just not because of Nelson's good post defense, but because Williams likes to start with the ball out on the wing facing the basket quite a bit. Nelson showed he could stay with Williams, moving his feet quickly enough and staying balanced, beating Williams to the spot. It not only was physically a great defensive performance, but you'd have to suspect that Nelson also did his homework on Williams, seemingly knowing Williams' tendencies well, and beating him to the spot as if he knew where he was going.
In the post-game interview of the players, Nelson made a reference to Bruin Report Online's Greg Hicks, saying that he wanted to prove that Hicks was wrong for asserting that Nelson couldn't play defense, and it certainly makes for great video (thanks, Reeves). But he also got it fundamentally wrong: Hicks and BRO never said Nelson couldn't play defense, but that it seemed he often times chose not to.
Now that he's shown us what kind of defense he can play when he's focused and motivated, we'll all definitely expect it out of him now.
And, if we're going to get it exactly right, we've never really raised much criticism against Nelson's post defense, but more often his help defense, which he actually references in the video as still needing work, and his jogging back up the court in transition.
No matter what was his inspration, it was an excellent defensive performance by Nelson. He held Williams scoreless for 20 minutes, and to only 2 points in the second half.
This game itself proved the sometimes tired axiom that defense will carry you through is right on. When UCLA's offense went cold in the second half, and it did so for a very long stretch, UCLA held its double-digit lead against Arizona because the Wildcats just couldn't get a good look against UCLA's defense. Of course, give Nelson a great deal of credit for his man-to-man on Williams, but it was a definitely defensive team effort. UCLA was the best it's been in defending screens. Much of that might have been because Arizona was giving the Bruins so much space on top of the screen for defenders to easily go around it. But the Bruins generally looked more confident and self-assured about how to defend screens, and then, even just as important, how to provide help to cut off any dribble penetration and then rotate a second time and pick up the kick-out. There were so many Arizona possessions in which they just couldn't punch a hole in UCLA's defense. Even the two consecutive three-pointers that got Arizona a bit back in the game in the second half came after UCLA had sustained two very good defensive trips, it was just that Arizona hit two forced three-pointers at the end of the shot clock. It was clear, though, that if UCLA kept playing defense like that for the remainder of the game Arizona wouldn't be able to keep hitting forced, end-of-shot-clock 24 footers.
The other Bruin whose presence had such a big impact on the game is easily Josh Smith. His defense was good, but his bigger impact came on the offensive end. Besides asserting that UCLA's defense will carry it, the other assertion we've been maintaining all season is that good things happen when the big dog touches the ball in the post. It seems that UCLA got that through its collective head in this game. Smith scored 17 points, and just about every time he caught the ball on the block Arizona just simply couldn't handle him. Williams tried, but he looked like a little gnat on Smith's back. But then, what really also made a huge impact was Smith's passing out of the double team. Arizona collapsed a double team on him, but Smith, to his vast credit, has learned not to panic. He repeatedly found cutters or open outside shooters with his passes. Nelson needs to buy Smith a couple of Fatburgers because he was the most immediately recipient of Smith passing out of the double team, numerous times cutting down the middle of the lane for a Smith pass that led to dunk.
Tyler Honeycutt played a solid game, too, getting 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks, against just 1 turnover. He also looked energized by the emotion of the game, offensively being aggressive going to the basket and not settling for outside jumpers, while also playing good defense. Arizona is a good defensive match-up for him, since the guys he generally guards are more fours than threes. We don't know if it's by design, but Honeycutt is most effective defensively when he stays in front of his player but allows him into the paint, which is pretty much a trap to make the player attempt a shot, which Honeycutt has a very good chance of blocking. We've maintained that Honeycutt would be such a better defender if he had to defend opposing fours, and this kind of a way to re-create that.
What's really encouraging is that, if you might notice in this article, we keep touching on the fact that UCLA is learning how to play defense, and each player is finding his defensive niche. We said in the season preview that the team could potentially be very good if this happened, and the game against Arizona is definitely an indication that on many levels it is.
Jerime Anderson also deserves recognition. He was good in every facet of the game in his 15 minutes, scoring four points, including a big basket that to an extent stemmed the tied of an Arizona second-half run, and he had 3 nice assists against no turnovers. He was instrumental in getting the offense back on track when it was sputtering, making the right, well-timed pass in Howland's offensive set, and re-emphasizing to get the ball inside. He also played very good defense.
Another big factor in the game: 8 UCLA turnovers. When the Bruins take care of the ball, and play strong defense they're awfully difficult to beat (that sounds strikingly like something I could have written any time between 2005 and 2008). We did notice that Nelson, on a defensive rebound, gave up the ball to a guard rather than trying to bring it up himself, and that definitely helped to limit turnovers.
We do have to say that, while UCLA did play a very good game, its best of the season, it was facilitated by a poor game from the Wildcats. While it seemed that Arizona had been starting to make a case as of late that they are just not Derrick Williams, UCLA, to an extent showed that, well, yeah they are. If you hold down Williams you can hold Arizona to 49 points. Not only is his scoring big, Williams is the key to the rest of the Wildcats scoring, and UCLA stopped that down. The Wildcats, too, appeared flat for most of the game, perhaps because it was coming off a disconcerting loss to USC, the energy of the UCLA crowd, etc. But also, Arizona's Sean Miller seemed to make some tactical errors. UCLA's opponents this season have minimized Josh Smith's impact not by doubling him, but by denying him the ball, and Arizona allowed him to touch it almost at will. Smith is a good passer but sometimes doesn't work hard to get position to catch the ball, so you'd rather deny him the ball in the post than allow him to pass out of the double team. Arizona never went to a zone throughout the game, which would have helped its defense collapse on Smith and deny him a touch. Then, if you were going to be married to the double team, you would assume the most obvious guy cutting down the lane, Nelson, was going to be getting the pass out of the double team, but it looked like it was the first time that had ever happened to the Wildcats, every time. They were particularly poor defensively away from the ball, with UCLA cutters easily leaving their flat-footed defender in the dust. As I said, too, on offense, Arizona's screens allowed far too much space for a UCLA defender to trail his man on top of it.
Arizona's breakdowns and curious tactical choices definitely contributed to the, yes, you have to say it – magical – day. Like it was a Hollywood script.
Hopefully the Bruins have a few more scenes of the potential feel-good movie of the year on location in Seattle.