UCLA's Big Win in the Desert

Shabazz led UCLA to a win over #6 Arizona - Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA beats Arizona on the road for its biggest road win in years

This win was good. The kids really deserve credit for going into a hostile environment and winning (emphasis mine).

The Bruins won their first true road game over a ranked team since 2008 in rambunctious McKale Center, 84-73 on Thursday, when the freshman were about a fazed as an owl by nightfall.

"This helps us, getting a signature win on the road," coach Ben Howland said.

Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and reserve Tony Parker are not babies any more. They had 52 points and 23 rebounds, with slick senior point guard Larry Drew II leading the offense through a Wildcats defense that looked confused and a rotation late at times.

Muhammad turned the game into a Pac-12 coming out party. His 23 points tied for his conference high, and made up for his gaffe prior to last weekend's Oregon game, when he was late to a team function and did not start in a 76-67 loss.

While arguably all but one player had a good game for UCLA, one person stood out:

Shabazz Muhammad earned his high school fame in the spotlight - ascending to No. 1 in the country by performing under the brightest of lights and carrying the heaviest of his team's burden. Pressure has always been his greatest companion.

And there he stood Thursday night, at a potential crossroads in UCLA's season with the ball in his hands behind Arizona's 3-point line, the Wildcats having stolen away all the game's momentum. The freshman insisted earlier in the week he would take this game into his own hands, if need be, after he and the Bruins fell apart down the stretch against Oregon. And with less than six minutes remaining and UCLA's lead cut to five, he followed through on his promise.

Muhammad hit the open 3-pointer directly in front of a rabid Arizona crowd, sprinted back to the other end of the court, and stole the ball back again - a turnover that led to two free throws and a crucial five-point swing - sucking all the air out of an inflating McKale Center.

In a game of rally after rally, the Bruins - and more specifically, their best player - finally held on in the final five minutes for an 84-73 victory over No. 6 Arizona. After a tough loss to Oregon, the Bruins responded with their first true road victory over a ranked team in almost half a decade (Washington State, 2008), and the first loss for Arizona at home since January of last season.

For the first time this season, the Bruins started fast. And while I think Howland truly out coached Sean Miller last night (just as Oregon's Dana Altman out coached him Saturday), there are still questions. How overrated is Arizona? What's with the substitution pattern? Can Sean Miller coach or just recruit? (emphasis mine)

Arizona hardly looked like a top-10 team early on, failing to score its second field goal until 12:17 in the first half on a Grant Jerrett layup. UCLA forward Travis Wear responded 16 seconds later with a jumper, and UCLA went up 21-5 going into a media timeout. The Bruins were 10 of 15 from the field, while the Wildcats were 2 of 14.

Shabazz Muhammad inexplicably went to the bench after scoring 7 of UCLA's first 15 points on 3-of-4 shooting. He spent the first few minutes of the game burning guard Nick Johnson, but drew much more attention from 6-foot-7 forward Solomon Hill after re-entering the game. Muhammad finished the half with a game-high 11 points,

The fast start was very important but so was the Bruins ability to withstand the inevitable Arizona run in the second half and the usual Bruin let down:

The Bruins led by as much as 14 seven minutes into the second half, but they've allowed teams to come back (see: Utah, Colorado). This time, in the face of the loudest crowd they've seen yet, they withstood a 10-0 run that cut the lead to 55-51 at 11:12.

Shabazz Muhammad, who scored a game-high 23 points, was responsible for a key five point swing with under six minutes to go, following up a 3-pointer with a steal and two free throws. That stretched the UCLA lead to 68-58. The Bruins then scored 10 of their final 14 points at the charity stripe to seal the game.

One last time for what Shabazz did:


That crowd was silenced early and emphatically; UCLA began the game hot, Arizona started 1-of-10, and by the time Sean Miller called at timeout at the 14-minute mark the Bruins led 17-3. UCLA couldn't have asked for a better start, but it kept up its torrid pace throughout, outrunning and outgunning an Arizona team that could never quite find its rhythm.

The Wildcats made a totally expected push in the second half, but they never got all the way back, never got things close enough to let that crowd put UCLA in a grinder. Instead, the Bruins -- so circumspect in November -- coolly killed the game. By the final two minutes, as UCLA freshman Kyle Anderson set up David Wear for a fast break dunk, the Bruins had what play-by-play genius Bill Walton called the Bruins' "first meaningful road win in five years."

Key player: Shabazz Muhammad. For as good as freshman Jordan Adams has played this season, and for as much as the Wears have improved, and as impressive as Larry Drewhas been, the key figure driving this genuinely good UCLA offense is Muhammad. Muhammad has been scoring both at volume and with efficiency, using his unique blend of outside touch, ballhandling and explosion, and things were no different Thursday night. Muhammad helped set the tone early, and finished with 23 points on 16 shots and 5-of-8 from the free throw line. In early January, we made the argument that if he hadn't already,Muhammad could play himself onto Wooden Award watch list contention; he is worthy of that distinction by now.

Sporting News raises an interesting point on the game and UCLA.

UCLA improving on D?

The Bruins still are only 110th in the defensive efficiency ratings at Kenpom.com. Opponents shoot 41.4 percent from the field. They definitely earned these numbers. If you happened to see their 97-94 overtime victory over Missouri, you know this to be true.

The Bruins' Pac-12 opponents, though, are shooting only 40.3 percent. That's not how this is supposed to work. Once a team gets through chewing up mid- and low-majors during the pre-conference schedule-yes, of course, UCLA lost to Cal Poly, so not much chewing up there-a steady diet of major-conference opponents is supposed to push those numbers up a bit.

Of course one bit of bad news. Not sure on Travis Wear for Saturday against ASU.

UCLA forward Travis Wear was suffering from concussion-like symptoms and sat out the second half of the Bruins' 84-73 victory over No. 6 Arizona on Thursday night at the McKale Center.

"There was a foul or something, I don't know if it was an elbow or what it was to the head," Wear said. "I think I got a stinger because both of my arms went numb and I was just out of it."

Wear, a 6-foot-10 junior, said trainers administered concussion tests, which he did not pass. He said he would be re-evaluated overnight and again on Friday and Saturday before determining his availability for Saturday's game at Arizona State.

So what does it mean? First the up side from Peter "talking points" Yoon over at ESPN:


And that's when UCLA is at its best: when it has something to prove.

The key now, is to maintain a high level of play from week to week. The Bruins showed Thursday they can play with some of the best in the country, but have yet to show they can do it on a consistent basis.

. . .

"Not get complacent," freshman Jordan Adams said. "We should play every team like they are a top-ranked opponent and have a high RPI and don't let up on anyone. It's hard to do because you play down to the level of competition, but yeah, we want to step it up."

. . .
"That just comes with effort," Muhammad said. "Coach Howland is always pushing us and especially pushing me. I say it's effort. We do seem to play better with our backs against the wall, but we're getting to where we can play at this level all the time."

And what it should mean:

"It's going to be hard to forget this one," said Muhammad, who had a team-high 23 points. "This is the sixth-ranked team. We're probably going to see ourselves on ESPN and all that stuff, and everyone is hyping us up."

But, he said, "You're only as good as your last game."

Then the Bruins are pretty good at the moment.

Go Bruins.

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