At halftime, UCLA was well on their way to an 0-2 record in Kansas City, and some deep questions as to whether things could get better.
While some of those questions still remain, especially on the defensive end, after this game no one can question the heart of these Bruins. UCLA stormed back from a 12 point deficit in the first half to beat the Wisconsin Badgers thanks to an Aaron Holiday buzzer-beater.
There’s going to remain questions about the defense following this game, especially since the Bruins allowed 22 3-point attempts by the Badgers, which is becoming a running theme for this team. Fortunately, Wisconsin was cold from distance, only making 5 of their shots from distance for a 22.7% 3-point shooting percentage, well below what UCLA has been allowing on the season. This game also refreshed some of the offensive questions, as UCLA ended up with 19 turnovers a day after only having 8 against Creighton. UCLA’s offense just never got in rhythm, especially the three heralded freshman. In fact, late in the game, UCLA only had 2 players in double figure scoring, and they were GG Goloman and Prince Ali, not exactly the two guys you’d expect to be in that position.
Thankfully, the Bruins turned it on late, led by Aaron Holiday. Holiday only had 4 points in the first half, Holiday only had 4 points on 2-6 shooting, but he turned it on in the second half, finishing with a team-leading 18 points and a series of clutch baskets late, including two 3s and the final layup with the clock running out. Jaylen Hands, who left the game in the second after hitting a layup to give the Bruins their first lead with an apparent ankle injury, returned to make some key plays as well, and really shook off the struggles he’d been having in late-game situations.
I do need to stress that this was a very good win. Wisconsin is going to be a tournament team, so that gives UCLA an early good win on their resume. But even beyond that, UCLA showed a ton of heart in fighting back, and while the execution late was a bit lacking, they proved that they could win a close game against a quality opponent, a skill last year’s team didn’t have to learn until late in Pac 12 play. That can be a huge factor going forward.
The better news is that UCLA was able to salvage the tournament with a win, and now goes into a series of games against easier opponents where UCLA can hopefully work on some of their issues. UCLA can theoretically head into the Michigan game with an 8-1 record, which would have been unthinkable at even the midway point of this game.
Aaron Holiday led the Bruins with 18 points and 5 assists. Thomas Welsh led the team with 8 rebounds. Ethan Happ led Wisconsin with 19 points.
- Player of the Game: Aaron Holiday - For a long stretch of the game, GG Goloman occupied this spot, but it’s hard to deny Aaron after the way he took over down the stretch. Holiday scored the last 10 points for the Bruins, with 2 3-pointers, a pair of free throws, and that final clutch layup. While I think I’d still like to see Holiday become a bit more assertive in the early going to aid his freshman charges in easing into the game, Holiday has clearly taken his place as the star of this team.
- Defensive Issue: 3 Point Defense (Again) - Don’t let Wisconsin’s poor 3-point shooting percentage fool you: UCLA was again abysmal at defending the 3. The Bruins gave up a ton of open looks, which the Badgers just couldn’t convert. Wisconsin was able to pick apart the interior and work outside of easy shots, and Steve Alford really needs to go back to the drawing board regarding his defensive scheme.
- Shallow depth affecting interior defense? - This is more of a personal hypothesis, but it’s hard to deny that UCLA’s interior defense has had some issues. Thomas Welsh in particular has looked tentative at times, but I’m more liable to believe this is a result of Welsh trying not to get into foul trouble. GG Goloman eventually fouled out of this game, and had it gone into overtime, we would have seen how Alford would deal with that issue, but for now, UCLA is going to have to figure out a way to get the interior playing better on the defensive end.
UCLA returns to Pauley Pavilion next Sunday for a matchup against the UC Irvine Anteaters. Tipoff is set for 3 PM PST.