UCLA Beats the Ugly Duckling

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

UCLA played well for about 10 minutes in the ugliest game of the season Thursday, but pulled out a tough road win against Oregon. The old axiom -- good teams win when they play poorly -- is proven true again, and greatly due to an exceptional freshman...

"There is no such thing as an ugly win."

When you play sports, that's what you hear. Because a win is a win.

But since we're just fans here on BRO we can readily admit when a win is ugly.

Hideous. Repulsive. Nasty.

UCLA's win over Oregon could be described in any of these ugly-synonymous terms, when they beat the Ducks at Mc Arthur Court Thursday, 56-49.

This game was so ugly, even the Mc Arthur Court game clock didn't want to watch.

But UCLA goes to 16-4 and sits atop the Pac-10 at 6-2, one-half game ahead of 6-3 Arizona (after Washington took a spill at Cal last night, 71-69, to become tied with Cal at 5-3).

While it certainly wasn't pretty, it certainly was a satisfying win. The Oregon trip isn't necessarily as scary as it used to be, since Oregon is struggling, but the state is still not a pleasant place to play basketball for the weekend. Before last night's game, Oregon and Oregon State were a combined 14-3 on their home floors this season.

What was truly impressive about this game (and there wasn't much), and about the season, is UCLA's ability to win a game where they played poorly. You always hear (another sports axiom) that good teams still win when they play poorly, and that's been a major part of the reason UCLA is 16-4 so far this season. There have been maybe four or five games this year that UCLA has won that could be considered fairly ugly, but the point is that, compared to year's past, they won the games.

So, why is UCLA winning most of the ugly games they get in this year compared to years past? Mostly, they have better players, which gives them a better chance that at least one of them is going to step up in crunch time and win a game for you. Or a combo of a couple. They're tougher mentally than in years past. This team, like just about any, tends to lack focus at times, but it doesn't tend to do it in the last few minutes of the second half when the game's on the line. And thirdly, they're well-coached, and more importantly, they're buying into the coaching.

The first point – about having better players, and you could get a combo of them stepping up to win a game – was certainly the case Thursday night against Oregon.

All in all, UCLA as a team probably played well for about 10 minutes. There was the last few minutes of the second half, when UCLA put on a 12-4 run to finish the half with the biggest lead of the game up to that point, 30-25. That run was fueled by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute making a jumper, then Jordan Farmar knocking down a three, and Mbah a Moute stealing the ball and making a lay-up, and then Mbah a Moute getting a huge offensive rebound on a missed free throw by Farmar and scoring on anothe lay-up. It was then capped by one of Mike Roll's dagger threes in the last few seconds of the half.

Then the Bruins played well for about the last seven minutes of the second half, putting on a 19-7 run to overcome a five-point Duck lead to win the game. In that stretch, Jordan Farmar scored five points, had two crafty assists and two big steals. Mbah a Moute had five critical points and even four even more critical rebounds. And then Arron Afflalo went five-for-five from the line.

Everything besides those combined ten minutes was ugly.

But if you notice, there were some names cropping up here over and over – mostly Farmar and Mbah a Moute. These two clearly carried UCLA throughout the night or, at least, carried them for those 10 minutes, enough to get UCLA the win.

Farmar finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and while he played erratically for probably 20-30 minutes, he played excellently for those other 10 minutes or so, and again, that was enough. His two big successive steals were huge in the last couple of minutes of the game to secure the win. The game was tied at 45-45, and Oregon had the ball with about 4 minutes left, and it was a case where the game could have easily finished in favor of either team. There wasn't necessarily momentum going either way. That is, until Farmar had those two big steals on two possessions in a row, scoring off the first one himself and the second one leading to a foul on Mbah a Moute (who else?) and two converted free throws, to put UCLA up 49-45 with three minutes left, and the edge the Bruins needed to hold on for the win.

The player of the game for the Bruins, though, was easily Mbah a Moute, who ended with a double-double, a team-leading 15 points and 10 rebounds, while playing the most minutes on the team, 34. During those 30 other minutes where UCLA wasn't playing well as a team, Mbah a Moute was just about the lone player who kept them alive. Even though he's had more rebounds in a game, this was perhaps his best rebounding performance of the season, uncannily getting some boards that were out of his area or in critical times when Oregon looked like they could possibly be putting it together for a run. What's scary is – a few weeks ago it looked like Mbah a Moute's production might be slipping, that he could be hitting a freshman season wall. But in the last couple of games he's looked stronger than ever. You can see him improving on just about every possession. And if it's possible, his rebounding is even improving. He's easily one of the best freshmen in the country, and if he doesn't make freshman All-American honors it can only be attributed to the Dick Vitales of the world not wanting to try to pronounce his name.

It truly is one of the most pleasing aspects of this season – to envision Mbah a Moute as a junior or senior at UCLA.

There were also some good contributions from Cedric Bozeman, making his return to the court after being off for a month with a strained shoulder. There were a few moments in the first half when Bozeman was key in keeping UCLA in this game, capped by a nice penetration and dish. There were some moments where, as a UCLA fan, you were thinking that Bozeman was the only Bruin playing well and thanking the basketball gods he had returned. He played solid defense, also, which was needed and critical down the line in the second half. Curiously, though, after he fearlessly knocked down an open three-pointer in the first half, he then didn't take open looks in the second half.

Mike Roll had a few critical moments, like the three-pointer to end the first half that was mentioned. He also had a huge defensive rebound at about the six minute mark with the scored tied at 42 that then seemed to bolster the momentum of UCLA's run at the end of the game.

So, that was the prettier aspects of the game, and here are the ugly parts. For about 30 minutes, UCLA was inept offensively and had some considerable lapses defensively. UCLA was plagued continually by some of its worst offensive decisions of the season, with Afflalo and Farmar forcing shots, a good amount of missed easy lay-ups, ill-advised passes, and some jittery, freshman mistakes from Ryan Wright. And then early on, for at least the first 6 minutes or so, UCLA was getting killed on the boards, by one of the poorest rebounding teams in the Pac-10. Oregon was owning its offensive boards, with just about every possession the Ducks getting multiple shots after multiple offensive rebounds. While, on the other side of the floor, UCLA was getting one shot and out. Luckily Oregon was shooting like they were blind-folded.

When UCLA came out to start the second half, it had that five-point lead, 30-25. It then didn't score a basket until 15:30 in the second half, going 4:30 without scoring, shooting only four times in that period, and losing the lead to Oregon. But it continues. UCLA scored one basket to get to 32 points, then went another three minutes scoring just one point. So, in the first seven minutes of the second half, UCLA had scored 3 points, trailing Oregon 36-33. It persists. UCLA scored four points in a couple of minutes, and the score was 39-37 Oregon at the 10:30 mark. The Bruins then went on another one of its scoreless runs for three minutes, not scoring until the 7-minute mark. A grand total of seven points in 13 minutes.

During this stretch – which was probably the ugliest of the season – the game for UCLA went pretty much like this: bad offensive decision after bad offensive decision, and then a big rebound by Mbah a Moute. Farmar missed two three pointers, one a very bad decision to take, and then Ryan Hollins fouled out with about 7:30 to go and UCLA down 42-37, and it seemed that the Bruins had lost what little control of the game they had.

The two worries to take from this game are UCLA's continued stagnancy with its offense and the continuing slump of Arron Afflalo.

UCLA's half-court offense is the weakest aspect of this team, easily, and it's probably the aspect of the team that is most affected by its youth. Execution sometimes can be shoddy and then, when the game tightens, so does the half-court offense, with players standing around, relying on the high ball screen almost exclusively. The execution and getting tight you can see is due to the mistakes of youth, with players failing to make the proper screens or cuts, or traveling in the post or when they're unchallenged at the top of the key.

Afflalo finished with 12 points, well below his season average, and those were padded by getting fouled and going to the line in the last few minutes of the game. He was 3-of-10 from the field and 1-for-6 from three. It's not hard to see that Afflalo is forcing his offense right now, not out of selfish motivation, but because he feels it's his obligation, as the team's leading scorer, to shoulder most of the scoring load. He's over-penetrating, getting into problems in the key or trapping himself along the baseline for off-balance shots. And you can see in his three-point stroke that he's trying to over-finesse it. Early on in the season Afflalo would shoot his outside jumper at the top of his jump, but now he's shooting it more often on his way down, in an effort to try to be more technically sound in his stroke, to get him back on shooting track. But it looks like he's micro-managing his own shot, and he just needs to let it loose, at the top of his jump. For many of you who didn't watch Afflalo in high school, he would go through cold periods like this, and he had one mid-season last year as a freshman. The worry is whether he'll pull out of it for the remaining one-third of this season. Without him, many of UCLA's games are going to be as ugly as this one was.

But buying into the coaching, as we mentioned above, is critical this season, and is critical to the axiom of "good teams winning when they play poorly." While UCLA's offense wasn't good, its defense was for a substantial portion of the game. Oregon shot 32% for the game, and 28% in the second half, when UCLA really stepped up its defense and was contesting every shot. There were a number of Oregon possessions down the stretch where the Ducks were actually moving the ball around well, not going one-on-one, but UCLA's defensive rotation was excellent, consistently shutting off lanes and getting out on shooters. UCLA's defense is the result of good instruction, but also UCLA's players buying into Howland's repeated assertion that you'll be in every game if you play defense.

Even the ugly ones.

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