Threequel — #5 (and rising) UCLA has now avenged all three of its losses, after going into hostile Tucson and playing like Wyld Stallyns, riding Lonzo Ball and a 19-4 Second Chance Points advantage to a 77-72 second-chance revenge
Just like Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” the 2017 Bruins are traveling back in time, or at least it seems like it to long-time UCLA fans. After beating #4 Arizona in McKale Center, where the Wildcats had won their last 21 games and 68 of their last 69, The Boys from Westwood have now won 7 straight games to move to 26-3, and have won 4 straight over Top 5 teams, which they haven’t done since the Wooden Era!
The Bruins came into this game at #5 in the Country, so obviously they will leapfrog the #4 Wildcats. They may also jump #2 Villanova, and even possibly #1 Gonzaga, as both Top 2 teams lost this week. Gonzaga was undefeated at 29-0 until they choked away a huge lead AT HOME, against UNRANKED Brigham Young, who has now won 3 straight on the Zags’ home court.
How did the Bruins pull off the near-impossible task of winning in Tucson? Well, I highlighted Lonzo Ball at the top of this article, but there was no clear MVP of this game. Lonzo played an all-around great game on both ends of the floor, and was the orchestrator of the Bruins’ success, but he did have one lackluster stat, while several other of his teammates were also indispensable.
The Bruin guards all had their struggles, but did enough to hold off the Cats. While Ball scored 11 with 8 Assists and 5 Rebounds, he went only 1-for-5 from Downtown. Isaac Hamilton started off with 5 early points, but missed 9 of 12 shots and finished with only 8 Points. Bryce Alford made 3 3’s and led the team with 15 Points, but was only 4-for-12 from the field and missed 2 Free Throws as well. And Aaron Holiday, who pretty much carried the team for a crucial stretch in the 2nd half, missed 5 Three-Pointers, and the front end of a 1-and-1 when the Bruins were up by only 3 in the final 30 seconds.
Luckily for the Guards, they were picked up by the great, more consistent play of the big men. Thomas Welsh scored 14 on 7-of-10 shooting with 8 boards, and T.J. Leaf scored 12 and grabbed 7 caroms. Between them they had 7 Offensive Rebounds, and that was the key stat of the game: UCLA snagged 14 O-boards to U of A’s 4. That translated into a 19-4 advantage in Second Chance Points. And the Bruins needed them, since the Guards didn’t hit for the high percentage that they usually do.
UCLA led for most of the first half, until a late drought allowed Zona to get up 43-39 at the break. The Bruins were down by 6 about 4 minutes into the second half, when a Hamilton Three — on a second chance possession — started a 26-9 run that put the Bruins up by 11 with about 5 and a half to go. About two-thirds of those 26 Points were scored by Holiday and Welsh!
And there was a reason why Arizona scored only 9 in those 11 minutes. Despite Alonzo Trier’s phenomenal 28-point game that saw him driving to the hoop at will, finishing with amazing dexterity including reverses in towering traffic, and sinking key bombs that kept Arizona close, the Bruin Defense was stellar. They switched to a 3-2 Zone with Lonzo on top, and despite Ball’s foul trouble, he and his teammates stymied the Cat attack. Zona was out of sync, and outside of Trier, couldn’t get the shots they wanted.
So UCLA was still up by 11 with less than 5 to go, but Trier hit 2 Three’s and Lauri Markkanen sank 2 Free Throws, and just like that, it was a one-possession game with 30 seconds left. Then Holiday missed a front end, and Arizona had a chance to tie. But pretty good D forced Arizona to have someone other than Trier attempt a game-tying Three, and it wasn’t close. UCLA collected the rebound, and like stunned, deer-in-the-headlights, undisciplined losers, the Wildcats spaced out and didn’t foul the Bruins until there was less than 2 seconds left. So even if Alford missed the Free Throws, Arizona, who had no time outs left, had no chance. Quitters. Bryce drained both shots, so it was academic (not a word that Arizona fans relate to), and the final score was 77-72.
With Gonzaga choking on National TV AT HOME against a mediocre BYU squad, the Bruins are suddenly alive for the coveted #1 Seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Of course they would have to win the Pac-12 Tournament to achieve that, and that is no sure thing. Neutral court, in Vegas, which will have more Arizona fans than Bruin fans in attendance. And the Bruins would probably have to beat the three teams they just avenged losses to — u$c, Oregon, and Arizona — on back-to-back-to-back nights. Definitely not an easy task, but at least they may be more motivated, knowing that Gonzaga is less of a lock for that #1 Seed.