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Getting Better

Let's start with Dohn's report from yesterday's victory, which, despite the unreal last minute barrage of Cougar 3 pointers, was not really a close win. Dohn reports how a methodical Bruin offense carved up one of the best defenses in the country:

For 38 minutes UCLA carved apart the Cougars' highly regarded defense, and freshman Kevin Love was at the forefront. He controlled the low post and led UCLA to a 33-18 rebounding advantage, scored easily and continued to demonstrate his perimeter shooting acumen.

When it all was settled, Love had a career-high 27 points, powered his way to 14 rebounds, had four assists, and established the Bruins as the team to beat in the Pac-10.

"I think we started off earlier. It didn't take me nine or 10 minutes to touch the ball, like it did in (Thursday's) Washington game," said Love, who was 9 of 12 from the field. "This is probably my best game to date."

UCLA's offensive showcase made the nation's top-ranked defense look like that of the Washington Generals.

The Cougars were allowing a nation-low 50.4 points per game, which UCLA surpassed with 10 minutes to play. Opponents were shooting 38 percent against the Cougars, yet UCLA ran, fed the low post and made jump shots en route to 57.5-percent shooting from the field. [...]

It was the type of inside-outside game lacking in the Bruins' offensive arsenal in Howland's first four seasons.
Now, as efficient as our offense was, it was our defense which was the cornerstone of yet another memorable Ben Ball victory at Pauley. From Kuwada in the OC Register:
At the other end, the Cougars missed their first seven shots, were 1 of 8 and 2 of 14. Washington State came in ranked second in the conference in field-goal percentage, hitting 49.9 percent of its shots, but could make only 38.1 percent in the first half. The Cougars also turned over the ball nine times in the first half and 13 times in the game, after averaging only 10.6 turnovers in their first 14 games.

"Our defensive intensity and pressure early in the game really set the tone. We came out and just played great defensively, really got to where they were, sped up a little bit and had some turnovers,'' Bruins coach Ben Howland said. "I thought we did a good job of everything we do -- hedging screens, doubling the post ... just the things that we normally do. But we did it with a great passion and intensity that was the best of the year.''

The Bruins led by 18 points in the first half, 13 at the break and 15 when the Cougars (14-1, 2-1) started hitting 3-pointers.
Did Coach Howland mention something about doubling the post? Well, for those of you who didn't get to watch the game, here is a little sample of what the Cougars were experiencing all afternoon on Nell and John Wooden Court:

Photo Credit: Jack Rosenfeld

The intensity with which our warriors came out during both halves was incredible. As Jack's picture tells us, it was a suffocating and excruciating experience for Baynes, the Cougar big man in the middle, and all of his team-mates who looked a little frazzled until the those last 2-3 desperate minutes when somehow the ghost of Reggie Miller pulled a reverse mojo as they were heaving up and connecting on one long bomb after another.

Going back to first 38 minutes of the game, even Diane Pucin was impressed by our relentless defensive pressure:
Actually it was a defensive series, a 30-second snippet where UCLA's relentless pressure worked as well as a moving highway patrol brigade with lights flashing to keep the traffic herded to the side.

Washington State point guard Taylor Rochestie tried four times to dribble around the corner of the baseline and smacked up against Love or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He tried to make a pass into his center, Aron Baynes. He tried to pump-fake and get himself a shot. But Collison was in his chest.

Finally Rochestie lost the ball, a pass that went away. Howland was on the court, low in his own defensive stance, waving his arms, red-faced and excited.
In addition to being relentless, as noted by Norwood in the LA Times, the Bruins were patient on defense:
The Bruins excelled at a concept that is easier understood on the offensive end. They were patient defensively.

"Washington State is a team that will run 30 to 35 seconds off the clock, so you have to be real patient," point guard Darren Collison said. "We can't gamble. Any time you gamble, you give them an opportunity to score."

That isn't to say the Bruins sat back. Quite the opposite.

"The way they run their offense, they like to space it out," guard Josh Shipp said. "We definitely extended our ball pressure a few steps beyond the three-point line. I think we did a good job -- except for the last few minutes.

"It's definitely hard. You tend to get anxious and want to go and do something, try to block a shot or make a steal. They're waiting for you to make a mistake, and they'll capitalize on it."

Suddenly, the Pac-10 is not looking like all it seemed -- except for the competition for No. 2 through No. 9.
Well, it is still too early to make a call on the race for the Pac-10 title. Certainly our boys are sitting pretty at the top of the standings with a great start. However, we still have a long way to go with difficult road trips in the Pacific Northwest and the Arizona desert, where we are going to be playing in packed arenas gunning for our warriors.

However, we can certainly be encouraged at how our team continues to improve week by week:

Love had his best game to date. We have already talked about how he has improved so much on the defensive side. It is really something to watch and appreciate. Remember the Texas and Michigan State games when Mata-Real was playing the closing mins for defense? Well it looks like in 15 games Love has closed that gap, and there is now no noticeable dropoff in terms of defensive intensity when he gets in the court. And this is no disrespect the wonderful effort and superb defensive skills of Mata-Real. It's a compliment to him that our freshman phenom is matching his hustle and skills on the defensive side of the court.

Oh, and so much for the BS about a Love/Shipp chemistry issue. From Pucin again:
By the time UCLA had a 26-8 lead after that superb defensive stand forced Washington State's eighth turnover, Love was chest-bumping Shipp and it seemed this game that was supposed to be a thriller had changed into a rout.

The Bruins shot 30 for 52 (57.7%) for the game against the statistically best defense in the conference. Though the Cougars made a season-high 13 three-pointers and though the final score looked competitive, Weaver stated the obvious. "They were just a big cut above us today," he said. "They have real good players."
And one of those good players happens to be Keefe, who once again provided us with some heady mins in the first half, helping to keep our front court guys fresh for the second half.

I can't say enough about the effort DC gave us the yesterday. The kid has had a very difficult season battling through one injury after another. After getting banged up again Thursday night, he came in and gave us 30+ superb mins that featured all out defensive intensity and clutch shots/FTs in the closing mins when the Cougars were making their last charge.

As good as we were yesterday, the cool thing about our team is that there is still room for improvement. I am sure Coach Howland more than anyone will talk to his team about how to make sure we can keep the defense locked down till the end against well coached teams like the Cougars, who never give up, or he may just keep Miller out of Pauley! (from Dohn)
"Those last two minutes ... I'm glad I'm alive," Howland said. "That was a stunning barrage, and I blamed it on Reggie Miller. He came into our locker room after the game, and I said it must be his 3-point mojo that rubbed off on the wrong team in the last two minutes."
Well, whatever it was, it was scary and nerve-wracking to watch.

Anyway, I imagine Howland will have our boys rest up for a day or two before they get back to practice, getting ready to take care of the business of getting better for their next game on Saturday.