It must have been a big game last night because Bill “only show up when UCLA is really good or bad” Plaschke wrote on the game by ripping off Joe’s headline for his story (h/t to Joe for the headline to my article). However, I have to agree with his conclusion when discussing Lonzo Ball’s long dagger three pointer:
It seriously looked like he was flushing something, maybe the nagging questions that even with 22 wins in 25 games, UCLA is not NCAA tournament tough.
Entering this game, despite their reputation as the most entertaining team in America, the 10th-ranked Bruins were quickly gaining another reputation as the most underachieving team in America.
When the Pac-12 Conference schedule got tough, they had wilted, losing at Oregon, losing at USC, and losing at home to Arizona. With the Ducks on their home court in front of a full house, this was a game they needed to win to prove, even to themselves perhaps, that they can win more than two games in March.
Mission understood. Message delivered.
The leader of that mission was Lonzo Ball.
After UCLA’s best player all but disappeared as his team fell behind the Ducks by 19 pointsin the first half, Ball came alive to make four of his final five shots, including five points in the last 70 seconds.
“That’s my time to do what I’ve got to do,” said Ball, widely expected to be a lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. “The team’s comfortable with me in those type of situations. I had the ball and I just wanted to win.”
“I knew time was winding down. That’s one of my favorite shots. I don’t get nervous. It’s something I’ve been working for my whole life.”
The victory avenged UCLA’s two-point loss in Eugene, Ore., on Dec. 28 punctuated by Dillon Brooks’ 3-pointer with less than a second to play. The 10th-ranked Bruins (22-3, 9-3) pulled within a game of Oregon (21-4, 10-2) in the Pac-12 standings and trail conference leader Arizona by two games. UCLA plays at Arizona on Feb. 25.
Of course basketball is a team game and Bruin Report Online Publisher Tracy Pierson (not behind a firewall) highlights some of the other players:
While we gave Ball and Holiday credit, we have to give a little bit of credit to Bryce Alford, too. Yes, defensively. When UCLA was playing some pretty poor defense in the first 2/3s of this game, there were a couple of possessions when Bryce played hard defensively. He wasn’t successful necessarily; in fact, there was one sequence when Bryce worked as hard as he possibly could to stay in front of his man but he still got beat on a drive. But it was some of the most energy we’ve seen Bryce commit to defense during his career, and we’re thinking it helped ignite the team-wide surge in defensive intensity.
Also, dole out some credit to Anigbogu. His energy playing post defense also seems to rev up UCLA’s team defense. For one thing, Anigbogu is athletic enough to hedge and he did it in this game with energy. In fact, at one point he fell down while hedging he went at it so aggressively (and the falling-down hedge still worked). He also protects the rim well, and when UCLA’s defense was aggressively extending itself to not allow Oregon to get a shot, that rim protection on a couple possessions in the second half was the ultimate answer – which also led to some easy transition points.
I have been highlighting for weeks Bryce’s improved effort on defense and it is nice that BRO finally notices it. Kudos to Bryce. However, it is also another example of how Bryce is improved playing off the ball. Playing point and being a leading scorer takes a lot out of you. While it does not completely explain or justify Bryce horrendous defensive effort the past three years, it does add another log to the fire that Bryce Alford should never had been UCLA’s point guard the last two years.
But let’s not forget how special Ball’s game was. It was not the shot that made it special. As CBS writes: “After Lonzo Ball's worst 20 minutes came a Player of the Year performance.”
After a bad start in a huge game, Lonzo Ball reminded everyone why he's one of the best college basketball players in the country.
Against Oregon, Ball was whistled for a quick foul early in the game and looked out of place against an elite opponent for maybe the first time all season. He finished the first half with zero assists and two turnovers, in what Steve Alford would later call "arguably Lonzo's toughest 20 minutes." The Ducks were more experienced and on the verge of blowing UCLA out in its own building -- part one of a crucial L.A. swing in the hunt for Pac-12 supremacy and a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament -- but then the best player on the court took over. . . .
The second defensive adjustment came when Steve Alford put Ball on Oregon star Dillon Brooks. Ball got plenty of help from his Bruins teammates, but it was one of his best defensive efforts of the season. The energy generated by that effort seemed to spark things on the other end as well, with Ball, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday hitting clutch shots to climb back into the game and even take the lead. . . .
Lonzo Ball's time in college basketball is limited, but if he continues to play at a high level against the best teams on the biggest stages we should start considering UCLA as a team ripe to make a deep run in March.
Which brings us to the ESPN conclusion:
Could the Bruins struggle on defense and lose on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament? Sure.
Could they rumble through the field with this breathtaking offense and America’s most exciting player, the hero named Lonzo Ball who hit a clutch 3-pointer late that only a man without a conscience could produce? Yep.
They proved that Thursday.
Either way, you’ll keep watching. You must.
No team in America is more intriguing.
Ball is college basketball’s best player. Let’s keep Ball in that UCLA uniform until April 3.