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UCLA Basketball News Roundup: One Player is Not Enough

UCLA shut down Southern Cal’s best player, but when the Bruins’ best was shut down in the second half, the game was over.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at UCLA
Chris Smith dove, scored, rebounded and hustled, but ultimately ran out of gas in the second half
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is a team game and you need players, not just one good or great player. You have to be able to win if the other team shuts down your best player. Last night, the Southern Cal Trojans could and the UCLA Bruins could not. So, UCLA lost, 74-63.

The story was the defense to the media but I don’t think that is right context. First off, UCLA’s defense did shut down Southern Cal’s best player and the Daily News’ Maggie Vannoni made that the story:

USC’s big man, Onyeka Okongwu, is 6-foot-9, 245 pounds. And he’s a freshman.

He not only leads the Pac-12 with 49 offensive rebounds, averaging 3.50 per game, but is also the fourth-ranked freshman in the nation with 17.8 points per game.

Yet on Saturday, he was held to his season-low of just four points and two rebounds by UCLA (8-8 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) in the Trojans’ 74-63 victory at Pauley Pavilion. While the Bruins’ added continuous pressure on Okongwu, it was his inability to play through foul trouble which caused one of his most quietest performances of the season. . . .

The minute the game started, the Bruins doubled up pressure on Okongwu causing him not only to rush shots but to also be called for sloppy fouls. His first points didn’t come until just under the seven and-a-half minute mark of the first half and got USC ahead 22-20. However, less than 20 seconds later, Okongwu was called for his second foul and was immediately pulled out of the game.

Ben Bolch of the LA Times made the story the awful defense in the second half.

“Because they were focused on him, we had other guys step up,” USC coach Andy Enfield said after his team defeated the Bruins on their home court for the first time since January 2016. “That’s what it takes. It’s a team game.”

USC (13-3 overall, 2-1 Pac-12 Conference) made eight of its first nine shots after halftime and shot 69.6% while scoring 41 points in the second half, quieting UCLA’s season-high sellout crowd of 13,659 that included Bruins legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar along the baseline and Bill Walton at midcourt on the television broadcast.

“Obviously, our defense in the second half is about as bad as it can get,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who also credited the Trojans for what he described as a couple of backbreaking three-pointers late in the shot clock.

Coach Cronin’s comments were much more nuanced than that. While he did say defense was as bad as it could get, he also mentioned that it was also unlucky:

They hit a couple backbreaking threes at the end of the shot clock where we actually did play decent defense for [twenty] seven seconds. Couple one-on-one threes where we actually did play decent defense. Those broke our back, I thought.

College basketball is an emotional game. The Bruins played good defense at times only to have them hit dagger low percentage three-pointers as the clock ran out. We shut down their best player only to have everyone else step up. We lost our edge emotionally.

And the talent gap was obvious. Arguably, the guy who killed UCLA was Southern Cal’s Ethan Anderson. Mark Wicker wrote in the Daily News:

This is also a team with two prominent seniors and one of the nation’s most dynamic freshmen. For Ethan Anderson, the strong safety who plays point guard for the Trojans, there’s always a sense of pecking order.

But his coach, Andy Enfield, doesn’t want such deference, or ue respect. He’s telling Anderson that this might as well be Fairfax, that the new Trojan needs to play like the old Lion.

“We just want him to play like the L.A. City Player of the Year, which he was,” Enfield said. “He took one shot on the last (2-game) road trip. He wouldn’t have done that at Fairfax.”

Anderson didn’t do that at Pauley Pavilion either. He began the game by curling to the bucket and scoring on a lob from Jonah Matthews. He began the second half the very same way. He wound up with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including a 3-pointer.

I am not sure if UCLA’s fourth or fifth option could go off for 14 points in any Pac-12 game. Cronin said:

I thought Anderson was the key to the game. He controlled the game.

This Bruin team does not have enough offense. It has to win on defense. Prince Ali said:

Our goal is to give up less than 65, offense isn’t really what we’re worried about. If they score 62 today, we had 63, we win the game by one point and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

But that brings me to the other player. UCLA has one player averaging double digits. The Bruins stayed in the game in first half in part because Chris Smith was able to score. Personally, I think Smith was tired. At one point in the second half, he stood in the corner bent over with his hands on his shorts. After three Pac-12 games, Smith is UCLA’s go-to offensive player, scoring 16, 22, and 17 in each game. Sam Connon at the Daily Bruin writes in probably the best story on the game:

Smith led the Bruins with 11 points in the first half, but he shot just 1-of-5 from the field in the second. His 16-point outing still led the way for UCLA, but redshirt sophomore forward/center Jalen Hill’s 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 from the charity stripe was the most efficient performance by a Bruin on Saturday.

The Bruins’ offense stalled down the stretch – hitting just two field goals in the final seven minutes of the game – despite the fact they turned the ball over just once in the second half.

Keep in mind that Cronin said:

We’re asking Chris [Smith] to get double figures every game and he averaged four points a game last year in the Pac-12. He is a much-improved player from who he was last year. I’m asking him to do everything. He had great production on the stat sheet but defensively he really struggled tonight.

The other big scorer for Southern Cal was Nick Rakocevic. Rakocevic was Smith’s man much of the time. And that is the difference right now. Smith had a great half, but was gassed in the second half which hurt on offense and defense. The latter was shown by Rakocevic’s 11 points and 10 rebounds in the second half. UCLA was also pressing much of the game as well.

UCLA needs Chris Smith to have a complete, very good game to win. Southern Cal can have its best player a non-factor and still win. That is the difference right now.

Go Bruins!