With Arizona winning it's game in Tucson over Washington last night, the pressure was on UCLA to win a tough road game and keep pace. Unfortunately, the Bruins have done what they've done all season and turned in yet another unbalanced and inconsistent performance. Turnovers and stretches of poor defensive rebounding have plagued the Bruins in the past, but they've typically had just enough to still win games. That all changed tonight in Berkeley as UCLA fell to 2 games behind Arizona, 76-72, and ruined Malcolm Lee's second half heroics.
The first half was its own little horror show for the Bruins, displaying all the undisciplined and unfocused basketball that have long been speculated to be limiting factors on the overall success of this team. They started the game on an almost one TO per minute pace through the first ten minutes. Since the Bruins seemingly couldn't get any shots up on the basket, they managed only 18 points in the first half; a season low. In the second ten minutes, UCLA seemed to take care of the ball a little better only to give up eight offensive rebounds, and let offensively challenged Cal get a number of second chance points. All things considered, the Bruins were lucky to be down only 11 points at halftime.
UCLA came out of the locker room with a different attitude, and a different defense. Malcolm Lee, who had been aggressive in the first half without much results, continued to assert himself, and helped lead the comeback charge. Big shots from Jerime Anderson and some surprising putbacks from Brendan Lane helped out as well. With the exception of the job Tyler Honeycutt was doing (or not doing) defensively on Jorge Gutierrez, UCLA was doing fairly well in the second half continuing to D up while limiting both their turnovers and their opponent's second shot opportunities. To his credit, Honeycutt made some big threes, but his effort on the other end, and his turnovers were enough to spoil his 5-11, 14 point performance. However, the defense, and the predictable offensive awakening tightened the game up. Speaking of defense, for the first time this season, Howland went to the 2-3 zone. This had more to do with protecting Joshua Smith, who had just picked up his fourth foul, than stopping Gutierrez, but the tactic appeared to work for the most part. UCLA gave up some rebounds because of it, but that's to be expected. Smith, however, was able to make it to the end of regulation with just the four fouls.
With the Bruins down by three with six seconds remaining, Malcolm Lee took an inbounds pass and bounced in a three from straight away to take Cal to overtime. While Malcolm did all he could in the extra period, draining countless free throws and finishing 10 for 10 from the line for the game, once again, the Bruins forgot how to rebound. Especially disappointing was the offensive rebound given up off of a Cal free throw miss which turned into a bucket. Those second chance points doomed the Bruins in the extra period.
They say when you play with fire, you eventually get burned, and tonight, the Bruins' mistakes finally caught up with them and burned them for a loss. UCLA will now have to depend on Arizona slipping up to put them back into contention for the Pac 10 Title, but really, with the way that they played that first half, with everything that they knew was at stake, it's hard to say at this point that they'd deserve it.
In the big picture, UCLA remains in second place in the conference, and at 19 wins, is still looking in good shape to earn a tournament berth. However, that first half effort was clearly disappointing for those of us hoping that they would start to play with consistency and begin to fulfill their potential. 20 minutes is not enough. It wasn't enough when they were winning games despite it, and it's not enough now.
With Arizona State coming to Pauley on Thursday, the Bruins are looking at a "must-not-lose" game, and they better put together more than 20 decent minutes of basketball this time, or they're going to be surprised at just how quickly a promising season can come undone.