UCLA was hairline close to losing against Washington State, needing to go to overtime to win, 58-56, in Pullman Thursday night.
Dijon Thompson hit a desperation three-pointer with a couple of second left in regulation to put the game into overtime.
There were probably two or three times in the last several minutes of regulation that it appeared UCLA was going to lose the game. It wasn't one of those games where you thought UCLA should win in the last few minutes. It was one of those games where you believed UCLA would lose.
UCLA was so close to seeing its record go to 11-7 and 5-5 in conference, while facing down #13-ranked Washington on Saturday in Seattle.
It's such a thin line between 11-7 and 5-5, and 12-6 and 6-4 and third place in the conference, with an NCAA tournament bid now still a possibility.
The Bruins needed at least a split on the Washington road trip to keep those hopes alive, and they did it in amazingly nerve-racking fashion against Washington State.
And they accomplished it with one thing – the thing we've been preaching all season: defense.
With their offense sputtering, going on long scoring dry spells, the only thing that kept the Bruins in the game was their defense. There were a few lapses, but overall UCLA sustained good intensity on defense and were better at finding their man on screens. The biggest lapese was when Josh Shipp fell asleep "at the switch" and allowed Washington an easy back-door basket toward the end of regulation that put the Cougars up by three points. It was almost literary-esque ironic – that the device that kept them alive in this game – was the one element that might have led to their ultimate demise. It surely would have been a shame that UCLA had played strong defense for most of the game and then fell asleep on the most critical possession of the game to lose it.
But UCLA didn't lose, and they're still alive.
There were a number of "Oh, No!" moments in this game. Those are moments that you can easily foresee something bad about to happen. Brian Morrison's big turnover in the second half when he caught a pass coming around a screen and just automatically jumped in the air as if to shoot, without being squared to the basket and with a defender right on him, was a big "Oh, No!" moment. On one possession with about five minutes left in regulation, with UCLA up by four, the Bruins did almost everything they could to turn the ball over, fumbling the ball but it luckily bouncing to a UCLA player three times.
And then there was the big "Oh, No!" moment. Ryan Hollins had played one of his best games of the season, with Head Coach Ben Howland obviously recognizing that Hollins was going to be the most productive of his centers early on when Hollins played well and then Howland gave him the majority of the minutes at the position. But then again, with Hollins and with this team in general, there are trade-offs. It's wise not to get too confident in Hollins. With two minutes left in the game and UCLA up by 3, 46-43, they had possession of the ball. A basket here would have been huge, making it a two possession game for Washington State with less than two minutes to go. You would want the team to run down the shot clock and try to get a good look at the basket, and specifically not commit a turnover. When you saw Hollins posting up and a UCLA guard about to feed him the ball, there was a deep feeling of dread. "Oh, Nooooo." Hollins is so prone to traveling when he catches the ball around the basket, and it was so easy to envision it happening in this situation, which it then did. Maybe it wasn't Hollins' fault, but all the bad vibes that every Bruin fan in America was feeling as soon as he caught the ball in the post.
Hollins, to his credit, though, played relatively well. Michael Fey started the game at center, but only played a total of four minutes, looking lackluster in those first four initial minutes. After having good performances last weekend, Lorenzo Mata was then given a chance, which amounted to five minutes at the center position, and he was relatively unproductive. So, desperate for someone to be able to produce in this particular night, Howland continued down his bench to Hollins, and luckily he responded. He played 36 minutes, easily the most of any center in a game this year, and finished with 8 points and 8 rebounds. Among the three, he looked to be the only one capable of guarding the array of different kind of offensive post players Washington State had, from tough but quick 6-6 Jeff Varem, to long 6-9 Robbie Cowgill. With UCLA needing someone to be able to defend the post all season, this was the night that Hollins was capable of it. He started the second half, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll take over the starting position for the rest of the season. Mata had played well the last couple of games, and Fey had a good stretch recently, too. It really seems that poor Howland has to play musical chairs with his centers every game out to determine which one will produce on that night.
Jordan Farmar and Dijon Thompson, as they have a number of times this season, came through in the clutch to pull out the game.
Farmar finished with 12 points, seven assists and just two turnovers, and played a pretty strong game. He generally played better defense, even though he was defending a rather slow-footed point guard in WSU's Derrick Low, but he didn't lose track of him for most of the game, which Farmar has been prone to do this season. He also struggled with those mid-range floaters he usually is pretty good at getting to go down. But on the positive side, Farmar had a very heady game, making some great passes and assists, some big three-pointers in critical situations, and one of the smartest plays of the season. With UCLA trailing by 3 and just seconds left in regulation, Farmar brought the ball up (amazingly, WSU didn't try to pressure him much). When Farmar pulled up from about 22 feet, with a relatively open look for the game-tying three, he opted to pass the ball off to his senior, Thompson, who was on the wing with a wide-open three. Thompson, then cooly knocked down the shot to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Thompson had generally a clutch game, scoring 24 points and pulling down 8 rebounds. He had some very huge baskets in crunch time on possessions when UCLA critically needed to be productive. He was able, too, to take the ball directly at Varem, WSU's most productive player, to get him into foul trouble and render him relatively ineffective for a majority of the second half. In the first five minutes of the game, Varem was fantastic, scoring in the post almost at will. In the second half, in foul trouble, he was far more tentative and turned the ball over couple of times in key situations, and Thompson had a good deal to do with it.
It's an interesting experience rooting for this UCLA team this year. It's difficult to find a real go-to guy that you, as a fan, can rely on. You spend a lot of time holding your breath. You have a senior in Thompson who is still a risk to put your faith in. When he puts the ball on the floor and has to take more than two dribbles toward the basket, every Bruin fan is holding his breath. Brian Morrison probably makes more lungs stop than any player possibly could. The freshmen, by definition, are iffy propositions much of the time. And the center position is a random roulette of chance every night out.
That high risk element to this team is what makes situations like the Washington game, with so much riding on such a thin line between success and failure for the season, almost too much to bear. It definitely borders on something that you might not be able to describe as entertaining or enjoyable, but purely agonizing. When quite simply one free throw can guarantee a tie and two can clinch the game, and Ryan Hollins misses both of them with five seconds left in overtime, giving Washington State a chance to either win it or tie it with its last possession, it's pure roulette. Russian Roulette.
So, UCLA fans, gather round, pick up the gun, put one bullet it in, spin the chamber, and put it to your temple, because UCLA is going to face probably four or five more games similar to this one the rest of the way, games where the line between success and failure for the season is very thin.