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That Confident Feeling ...

Bruins put on quiet a show last night at Pauley. But before I get to the fun stuff I will start with the negative. Once again they started out slow. Cal came out ready to play and early on they were having their way with Bruin defense. Gotta tell you it was disconcerting (and kind of annoying) to see the Bears scoring at their will via layups and dunks. I know we have said this and discussed it many times here on BN. We may be able to get away with slow starts at Pauley, but come Madness time, it may catch up with us. Hopefully that is something we can address in these last few games, as the team play with an ultra-serious mindset rest of the season.

That was really the only negative point from last night’s game. Otherwise that game was one of the more fun games of this remarkable season. As mentioned in the post-game thread it was Westbrook, who kick started the Bruin rally. Pucin picked up on this point in the LAT post-game report:

The best offensive flurry for UCLA came at what seemed a desperate time. Collison got his second foul with 11:31 left in the half. Howland planted Collison immediately on the bench and freshman Russell Westbrook came in.

Westbrook drove to the basket twice in a row. Both times he made the shots and got fouled. Westbrook missed one of the free throws, but his energetic scoring was a boost to UCLA.
Westbrook made things happen by directly attacking the rim. At least on TV it seemed like he woke up the entire team with his fearless mindset. It was also good to see Westbrook get his confidence back after having to start in a very difficult situation on the road in Morgantown. Hopefully the confidence he gained last night will serve him and the team well during this final stretch.

Speaking of gaining confidence let’s talk about Luc, Shipp, and Mata.

I really enjoyed Luc’s game last night. He only scored 8 points (along with 8 rebounds). However, I loved seeing Luc driving to the basket. Especially there was an instance when the team cleared out on the left, so Luc could slide and glide, and drive straight to the rim. It was awesome to watch. And it seemed to be the kind of play that is tailor made to fit Luc’s athleticism. I really hope we get to see more of that Luc. If he can keep attacking the rim and drive to the basket, instead of settling for jump shots (to be fair he only took 1 3 pointer last night), he will really help our offense.

Speaking of helping our offense, obviously another great game for Shipp. Yes I cringed a bit when he missed a drunk while trying to get a little too fancy during a fastbreak, but over all he had another great game. He scored 22 points. But it was Shipp’s complete game – 6 assists and a great defensive performance – that had everyone smiling after the game:
Shipp, who broke free from a six-week shooting slump Saturday with a career-high tying 24 points in the Bruins' victory at Arizona, led the team with 22 points Thursday and has put together the best back-to-back games of his UCLA career.

"The main thing is I'm back to having fun out there," he said. "I think in that one stretch I was thinking too much and not having fun."

The sophomore forward hit 9 of 12 shots, including a dunk off a Cal turnover with 11:56 remaining, which pretty much marked the end of the Golden Bears (14-13, 6-9).
I hope Shipp keeps having fun and keeps bringing that defensive energy to his game. I think it is going to be very interesting how he fares against Stanford and Washington State. Those are two teams, that are IMHO more disciplined and better coached than Bruin’s last two opponents. So let’s hope Shipp stays at it, plays within himself and the flow of the team game. That will allow him to maintain the confidence he has gained from last two games.

And in terms of gaining confidence … what can you say about Mata? It wasn’t just the Pauley crowd. I found myself clapping infront of the TV when the kid sank his 4th free throw in a row. And when he kept knocking down his FTs, I could feel the love for Mata all the way out here in East Coast. Obviously we will keep our fingers crossed that Mata’s FT performance was not an aberration and that from now on he will be able to knock down at least 50-60 percent of his FT shots. However, more important is that fact last night was the third straight game in which Mata scored in double figures. More from Dohn on Mata’s big night:
"It's just a matter of confidence," Mata said. "I've been shooting them well in practice. It's just been getting them to a game. I'll make them, so don't foul me anymore."

Mata finished 8 of 9 from the line, and actually made nine straight dating back to last weekend's game at Arizona. For perspective, Mata made eight of his previous 27 free-throw attempts, which came during an 11-game span. The success against Cal pushed Mata's percentage to 37.7.

"I expect him to make them like that the rest of the year," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "He's been shooting them real well. We did change a tiny little thing, but it's just relaxing. I'm just happy for him because he's put the work in. He's got a routine now, and I think this is a good confidence builder for him."

Mata's success from the free throw line is parallel to his play lately. He scored in double figures each of the last three games, averaging 11.3 points. His play gives the Bruins a low-post option at a crucial time.

"It's hard to beat us (when Mata is scoring)," said Collison, UCLA's point guard.
Yeap. And if Mata continues to improve along with AA2, we just may be in very good shape heading into March.

I think we can all sense that team may be, just may be getting that confident feeling, it was experiencing during the final stretch of last year’s regular season. Everyone is working on improving on their games. And the team is truly in that classic one-game-at a time mode.

I gotta tell you the feeling I appreciated was watching the opposing coach during second half. Coach Howland’s team was operating like a machine and Braun had no answer for Bruin adjustments made during second half. It is just fun to watch. And it’s the kind of fun I have not experienced as a UCLA (in either football or basketball) since I started following Bruins sports starting in the late 80s. In just four years Coach Howland has established an aura and presence about him in how he leads this program and this conference. We have been feeling it here on BN for a while. But it is starting to become apparent to rest of conference that this is now Coach Howland’s conference, and everyone else is just playing in it. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that it’s the kind of confident feeling a UCLA head coach (basketball or football) hasn’t projected since the days of Coach John Wooden.

Thank God for Ben Howland.