Did the 22nd-ranked Bruins regress yesterday in their 89-76 loss to #11 North Carolina? That's the theme of Zach Helfand's recap of UCLA's first loss of the month:
Midway through the first half against North Carolina on Saturday, the improbable was taking form. No. 22 UCLA had won its first two challenges, and now was giving No. 11 North Carolina fits. In the first half, the Bruins led by double digits. Could it happen?
Then the old defense returned. The Tar Heels stormed back and sprinted past the Bruins to win, 89-76, at the Barclays Center. UCLA would have to settle for two out of three of the marquee nonconference games.
But it wasn't just the defense that let the Bruins down. An old bugaboo returned to the Bruins' game: turnovers. As the Intern notes:
Before Saturday, UCLA had committed more than 10 turnovers just once in December. Against North Carolina, it had 17. Players bobbled easy exchanges, stepped out of bounds and dribbled off their feet. Big men were caught frequently in North Carolina's trap defense.
Four transition layups sparked a 13-0 Carolina run in the second half, and UCLA did not have the firepower to erase the 16-point deficit. The Tar Heels' 24 points off turnovers were a season high.
As unhappy as Steve Alford was with UCLA's transition defense, it was the turnovers that seemed to bother him the most. In his post-game press conference, Alford talked about the problems that UNC's trapping defense caused for his big men:
We had a good rhythm going, and they went to our traps, which we knew just through film that's something they were going to go to. I didn't think we handled the traps very well. A lot of it was bigs not being able to pass out of the traps. We were hoping it was going to be guards that got trapped, but it ended up being bigs that got trapped.
Early on, our turnovers, if I'm not mistaken, 8 of our 11 turnovers at the half were on the bigs. We've got to look at that on tape and we've got to really work on. It's something we've been working on, catching pivots. It's something our bigs have got to continue to work on and improve on. That's where their ceiling's got to be. We've got good passing big men. They can pass the basketball. I just thought we got a little bit sloppy. But a lot had to do with the defensive pressure. They did a really good job.
(Thanks to Jack Wang for providing a transcript of the postgame presser.)
While turnovers and poor transition defense were, as Alford said, "glaring weaknesses," the Bruins had a couple of other big problems. Both Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh were in early foul trouble, and with both on the bench, UCLA lost its rhythm on the offensive end. And with the Tar Heels struggling early to hit shots from the perimeter, their scoring explosion in the second half came primarily from points in the paint.
In spite of UCLA's defensive woes and its profusion of turnovers, the Bruins were within three with about 11 minutes left in the game, thanks to a terrific shooting performance by Isaac Hamilton (23 points on 9 of 12 shooting, including 4 of 5 on 3-pointers). But the Bruins didn't have an answer for UNC's Brice Johnson:
North Carolina (9-2) broke the game open with a 13-0 run that gave them a 73-57 lead with 6:24 to play. Johnson had four points in the run and when UCLA (8-4) broke its 4:28 scoring drought, Johnson answered to restore the 16-point lead.
Johnson finished with 27 points, missing just one of his dozen shots from the field.
Where do the Bruins (8-4) go from here?
UCLA plays its final nonconference game of 2015-16 on Tuesday at home against McNeese State (2-7). The Cowboys' two wins have come against Dillard University and Louisiana State University, Alexandria. UCLA and McNeese State have shared a common opponent this year--the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bruins beat the Ragin' Cajuns by nine (89-80) while the Cowboys lost by 33 (97-64). Those scores suggest that there may not be much value for the Bruins in Tuesday's game other than as a opportunity for players like Alex Olesinski, Prince Ali (if healthy), and Noah Allen to get some much-needed playing time.
After a short break for Christmas, the players will be back to start preparation for UCLA's New Year's Day Pac-12 opener against the Huskies (7-3) in Seattle. If the Bruins are going to show progress this season, they have to contend for the Pac-12 title. A couple of upsets against ranked teams are good, but our basketball program shouldn't be in a position where beating a ranked team is always considered an upset. If the Bruins are really improved from last season, they need to show it week in and week out against conference foes.