When new head coaches take over your football and basketball program, there is plenty of foundation to be set. For the basketball program, after the last coach cleaned out his office, new Head Coach Ben Howland had many priorities he wanted to establish in the new UCLA basketball program.
There are fundamentals, hard work, dedication, rebounding, defense...
And there is heart.
It definitely looks like the part of the foundation that covers heart has been pretty much established.
The new Bruins truly showed it in their two-overtime, comeback victory over Washington State Thursday, 80-77.
Not only did the Bruins come back from one 17-point deficit to cut the lead to six in the second half, but they then came back from another second-half, 16-point deficit to go ahead and win. There were so many stretches in this game where you said to yourself – “Well, that’s it. They made the effort to get themselves back in it, but they’ll sputter now.” Not only did you think that when the were faced with the second big deficit, but when it seemed like UCLA had expended all of its energy to win at the end of the first overtime and Washington State deflated that by sending it into the second overtime on a last-second three-pointer.
Howland said after the game, “This team has a never-say-die, never-quit attitude. I was impressed with the character that we displayed tonight to come back when down and never, never quit.”
It’s not only a testament to Howland’s establishment of heart and character in the program, but to that of the individual players on the team
The game was also a testament to one of Howland’s other foundational blocks -- defense. After so many years of coming to the realization over and over again, and then after the Oregon game, you’d think we’d all walk around in constant recognition that it’s defense that wins. It was quite evident in this game, that the only way UCLA could win is if it played good defense. There was no other way when you’re faced at haltime with a 15-point deficit, playing against a team that might not even give you enough possessions to make up that deficit. So every one of the opponents possessions would be a critical opportunity.
|Dijon Thompson shoots over Jeff Varem.|
The good defense, though, came in spurts. It certainly wasn’t evident in the first half, when UCLA allowed a team that was averaging 49 points per game to score 36 in the first half. Washington State is averaging about 35% from the field for the season, and UCLA allowed them to shoot almost 54% in that first half. There isn’t much defense involved there.
It’s curious, too, since UCLA was coming off easily its best defensive performance of the season against Oregon last Sunday. You would have thought that same realization that might have hit us about defense would have also hit the UCLA players. It looked to be a matter of intensity, as it always is with defense. It could have been that this was the predictable let-down game – not a big-named opponent sandwiched between a big win over Oregon and a big game against Washington.
It was probably also that UCLA, with its personnel, matches up defensively better against a team like Oregon, whose offense isn’t very structured and whose players tend to go one-on-one quite a bit. Defending Oregon is more about hustle. Against Washington State, a team that runs a very structured motion offense, defense is just as much about playing good team defense than it is hustle. With so many screens being set, and Washington State working their offense deep into the shot clock, good defense demands being able to switch on screens, providing help, and generally playing smart team defense, which UCLA generally didn’t do. Washington State had many easy baskets off good offensive execution, with UCLA’s defense eventually breaking down on many possessions. It appears that this UCLA team, with its inexperience and generally average feel for the game, defends better when it primarily needs to rely on intensity rather than defensive fundamentals. It probably will defend Oregon – or Washington – better than it would Washington State.
The defensive intensity definitely ebbed and flowed at times in this game, too. It appeared the intensity picked up when UCLA played better offensively, with the defense feeding off the offense. That’s not generally a good thing, since teams sometimes, like in this game, can go very cold offensively. In the first half, while UCLA allowed Washington State to shoot 54%, the Bruins themselves shot just 31%.
A note to the team: If your defense is going to come and go with the success of your offense, freshman point guard Jordan Farmar needs to get going offensively early in each game. In the first half, with UCLA struggling both offensively and defensively, Farmar had just two points and didn’t look for his shot (he took only two). In the second half, it was a different story as Farmar took 12 shots, scored 17 second-half points with two big threes, which were key in UCLA’s comeback effort. After the game, Farmar said it’s just a matter of him getting good percentage shots, which is probably true to a degree. Washington State, in the second half, was struggling to stay with UCLA’s’ high ball screen set it runs to free up Farmar. They even put their best defender, wing Thomas Kelati, on Farmar to try to slow it down. Farmar, though, also looked more to score in the second half coming off that ball screen. Farmar doesn’t need a great deal of room to get off his shot, and usually he has enough when he comes off that screen. If Farmar is content with taking the un-flashy 15-foot mid-range, UCLA fans are certainly content with him taking it all game.
Farmar did have an exceptional overall game, playing an astounding 46 minutes without committing a turnover and getting six assists and four key steals. For a freshman point guard, one who just committed nine turnovers a week ago against Oregon State, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Ryan Hollins, UCLA’s much-maligned 6-11 junior post player, also had easily his best game of the season. After getting just two minutes in the last two games, he was obviously sent a message by the UCLA coaching staff, essentially: You’d better produce or you’re not going to play. In fact, this week, Hollins went into talk to Howland about his playing time and Howland told him just that, emphasizing that rebounding will get him minutes.
It obviously worked. Hollins scored a season high 13 points and had 7 rebounds, and was the center of choice in the game in crunch time. It was Hollins’ best rebounding performance in quite a while. He got five big offensive rebounds, and clearly put more emphasis and effort into rebounding, getting a few very key rebounds in traffic down the stretch.
It was, though, truly setting Hollins up for tragedy when, after such a great effort and performance, all he had to do was hit one of two free throws with seconds left in regulation to ice the game, but missed them both. UCLA ultimately winning was probably very critical for Hollins mentally since, if they had lost, he very well could have been blamed pretty heavily for the loss.
In the post-game press conference, when asked if this game was an emotional one for him, Hollins fought back tears and admitted it was. He said he realized the urgency of the situation after not playing the last two games – that he’d have to produce (read rebound) or he wouldn’t play.
And not only did Hollins rebound, he played generally sound defense. Washington State’s Jeff Varem, as we said in the preview, was too quick for Michael Fey to defend and too strong for any of UCLA’s wings. We forgot to include in that preview that Hollins would more than likely be the best option to defend Varem, which proved true. In a highly critical sequence at the end of regulation, Washington State had a chance to win it on an in-bounds. Varem got the ball low in the block, Hollins defended him perfectly and Varem fumbled the ball out of bounds.
It obviously does help Hollins, too, to play the center position rather than power forward. He’s so much more comfortable offensively with his back to the basket, and he rebounds better when he’s generally closer to the backboard. But no matter what position he’s playing, what’s clear now is an effort to rebound is what will get him on the court.
And if you’re talking rebounding, it was a very good team rebounding performance, with UCLA out-boarding Washington State 43-39. There’s a difference now in the team’s rebounding. It used to be when the ball went up for grabs in a crowd, you’d have this underlying feeling that they weren’t going to come down with it. But that feeling has changed, especially with sneaky rebounders like Josh Shipp. And, clearly, the main catalyst to the team’s rebounding was senior Dijon Thompson, who tied his career high of 16 rebounds. Thompson had an off-night offensively, and a strange game overall. On one hand, he shot three for 14 and had five turnovers. On the other hand he pulled down those 16 rebounds and was amazingly always around the boards, and he took two incredibly critical charges that gave UCLA two much-needed stops in crunch time. It showed good senior maturity – if you’re going to go cold from the floor you’d better pick it up in other areas, which Thompson clearly did.
Brian Morrison also deserves some praise, for basically providing UCLA the little offense it could generate for a big portion of the game. He hit a couple of big threes, one in particular during UCLA’s first deficit-cutting run, and made some big scoring drives. He also had a huge steal in overtime.
At 8-3 and 2-1 in conference, UCLA now faces perhaps the best team in the league in Washington on Saturday. It was a good thing the game was moved from its original 12:30 start to 7:30 p.m., giving UCLA’s tired legs a few more hours to rest.