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Can't Ask For Anything More ...

Now you know why I had marked last night’s game against Michigan State as a ‘toss up’ before the season began (and that was not even taking into account we’d go into that game without DC and Roll). I was dreading last night’s match up all day. And at the end of the first half, I’d be lying if I sat that I wasn't searching for silver lining, and thinking how all we needed to do was to show some fight, learn from it, and get ready for it for rest of the season.

So just like T, I’d also like to formally apologize to Coach Howland and his warriors for doubting their resilience, toughness, and moxie. I am also a TOTAL MORON for not thinking we had any chance in the second half and come up with a magical win, that felt as good as any of our memorable tourney/regular season wins of last four years.

These guys bring out the college kid in all of us:

Photo Credit:John Rieger / U.S. Presswire (Via LA Times)

Yeah, I found myself jumping around and dancing in our living room, while trying not to make any noise and wake up everyone else. Just cannot explain the electric feeling that was going through my veins, when Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuc drained that shot. He had no doubt about it:

There was no doubt. "Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "I had a lot of confidence. I've been telling Russell to drive hard when he attacks the zone because guys are always going to step in because he's a good driver. I was ready. I knew the shot was going to come and I just shot it."
Before he drained the shot though Bruins had to fight, scratch and claw just to hang with the Spartans. And once again it was the Big Fella providing the steady presence and keeping us in the game:
Bruins freshman Kevin Love scored 21points and grabbed 11 rebounds en route to being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

Not only did he score and keep UCLA within striking distance until Josh Shipp and Westbrook got involved in the offense, he got a bevy of Spartans big men in foul trouble.

In the first half, Love drew five Michigan State fouls trying to gain position in the low post and was a major reason the Spartans committed 27 fouls.

"I knew I was drawing fouls, and my teammates were getting me in the right position to score the ball," Love said. "I missed a few chip shots, but I got a few back in the second half."

And when Love's teammates began to score, the Bruins were able to cut into a 36-25 halftime deficit.
There are couple of points I think we need to make about Love. Now he was absolutely amazing. And his performance was even more remarkable given the injury he was playing with, and how Izzo’s version of warriors were coming at him in waves. But believe it or not I think Coach Howland will find a number of things Love can improve on from last night.

First, there were at least couple of times Love got lost in defense in the first half. He lost his guy and forgot to rotate and found himself out of position at least twice in the first half. Thankfully, he didn’t make those mistakes in the second half, and I am sure Coach Howland had something to do with that. Secondly, I think this has been mentioned in the comment thread when Love also needs to look for his team-mates to help out when he is getting double/triple team down in the paint. He is a great passer. And we have already seen evidence of that (as we did last night in couple of instances). But he needs to think about kicking the ball out when he is caught in impossible situation down low. I know this is probably a tough deal for him because he has the mindset that he can make any shots. But this is an adjustment he will make eventually, realizing he is not taking on the high school kids from Oregon any more when he could power over an entire team. It will also cut down on the number of his turnovers.

Now Love was the man. But this was a team win. And Pucin zeroes in on some of the key flash points in second half:
The Bruins (5-0) trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half but slowly chipped at Michigan State's 11-point halftime lead. They drew within a basket twice. The first time, Westbrook scored a driving layup to cut Michigan State's lead to 56-54 and then again when he made two free throws with 5:02 left to make it 58-56 Spartans.

And it was Westbrook who stole the ball from Spartans guard Travis Walton and scored a fast-break layup that tied the game at 58 with 4:41 left. Michigan State swiftly scored the next five points, on a layup by Marquise Gray and a three-pointer from senior Drew Neitzel, who had started the game on the bench because of a stomach virus.

But the Bruins were unfazed. Love scored on a hook, was fouled and made the free throw to make it 63-61. What followed were two unlikely offensive highlights. In the first, Alfred Aboya grabbed a steal, dribbled the length of the court, missed the layup and celebrated when Mbah a Moute slammed home the rebound to tie the game at 63 with 1:40 left.

"A shaky drive," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said with a smile.

Then, with 31.5 seconds left, Mbah a Moute made his third three-pointer of the season, beating Michigan State's zone defense with confidence. Two free throws by Shipp with 11 seconds left capped the comeback.
What can you say about Russell. He played the entire 40 mins. And those 40 mins didn’t come against some mid major team. He logged those mins against probably the toughest team in college hoops other than the team he takes on during intra squad practices at Pauley on week days. Russell was incredible. There is no other way about it. Yes, I wish he could come out in first half like he did in the second, when he showed no fear whatsoever, and was defensively attacking the Spartan guards and creating his offense out of it. He was reminding me of AA (again folks AA is only reserved for a certain guard playing for the Pistons, we use AA2 for Aboya). He went down on a lock down mode and it was beautiful to watch.

We all had a lump in our throats when he went down, but here is how Coach Howland thought of it per Diane:
"Russell, I think, was more embarrassed that he got his dunk thrown back at him trying to attack the rim instead of trying for a jump shot," Howland said. "It was convenient his knee bothered him. I'm serious."
ROFL. How can I add anything to that?

As for Russell’s team-mate in the back court, Shipp had a good game. He certainly made some key shots. I have to tell you though there were moments his defensive effort (in the first half) and in certain stretches in the second half was driving me crazy. And there were those TOs. Josh also missed couple of entry passes to Love in the first half. Again I really hope these are all kinks Shipp can work out early in the season. But I think he has too much talent and athleticism to be a more consistent player (in terms of his defensive intensity and focus on the offensive side) and a key leader for this team.

Speaking of stepping up, I know I haven’t written enough about AA2 and Mata. Those guys just battled and battled all night against MSU big guys. They didn’t pile up stats in the box score, but they contributed in so many ways. They looked much more aggressive and tenacious than the Spartan big men down the stretch. And they were composed. I know AA2 and Mata can sometimes be … uh … a little clumsy on the offensive end, but man their defense down the stretch was outstanding.

So the Bruins get through the Spartans. But rest of their OOC is not going to be a cakewalk. Davidson is going to be tough. The Wolverines are not going to go down easy up at Ann Arbor. And then we will have a talented Longhorns team at Pauley. I have to chuckle a bit at all the talk about Howland’s pre-season scheduling being not all that exciting. I think he has managed to pack in plenty of good games this early season that will get our warriors mentally prepared for battle during the conference one. Once again Coach Howland is showing he knows exactly what he is doing. Katz has more on this game and the impact it could have on rest of the season:
This was hardly a classic game, but it was one that will reverberate for months.

UCLA won this game essentially leaning on six players. Collison hasn't played in the regular season. He said he's not ready yet to cut side-to-side and be on the court just yet. But that didn't stop him from being one of the first ones out to chest bump his teammates after the win.

"Me being competitive, I want to be out there," Collison said. "We needed this, we needed a taste of being down. I can't be any more proud of how we played down the stretch."

Don't think for a moment that this neutral-court game in Kansas City didn't matter in November. UCLA won, without its engine in Collison and zone buster in Roll. And Love proved just how much punishment he could take and still stand without getting in foul trouble himself (he had only two).

Now, imagine what UCLA will be like when it is healthy. If it resembles anything close to the team that played with the passion and purpose of the second half, then the Bruins should be on their way to making a third-straight Final Four.
Again, shame on me for having some doubts (about the ability of his team making a come back under the dire circumstances) for few moments late last night. They proved me wrong and I couldn’t be happier about the fact that I am not writing to explore silver lining in the world of Ben Ball the day before Thanksgiving.

Thank you Coach Howland and thanks to all our warriors for bringing out the inner kid in all of us. Can’t ask for anything more from the best basketball program in America.