Despite ‘Nova’s horsepower edge and Refs’ East Coast bias, UCLA hangs tough in NYC before finally burning out, 82-70

“Happy” Thanksgiving, Bruin fans.

And here’s what UCLA Basketball fans can give thanks for today:  If you take out a 3-minute mini-meltdown by the Bruins at the end of the 1st Half, they played #7 Villanova EVEN, in Madison Square Garden.  Despite stumbling out of the gate to an 8-0 deficit, UCLA was down by only 3 with 3 minutes left in the Half.  That’s when a few Turnovers and a cold shooting spell allowed the Wildcats to close out the Half on a 14-2 run.  That 12-point difference was exactly the final margin of the game, which Villanova won, 82-70.

“Nova was up by 15 at the Intermission, 44-29, but UCLA didn’t quit at all.  They actually made good adjustments, and outplayed the ‘Cats for the first 15 minutes of the 2nd Half, cutting the lead to 6 with about 5 minutes to go in the game.  But Villanova finally made back-to-back outside shots, after going 4-for-21 since the break, and was able to keep the Bruins from retaliating.

In the 1st Half, UCLA made their first three 3-pointers, but after that, they couldn’t shoot from outside at all, and they couldn’t get very many good shots inside.  Usual scoring leaders Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt were muscled out of the Paint, and the Bruin Guards couldn’t penetrate.  Really sloppy passing made the situation worse, as did the Bruins’ inability to run at all.  The Bruins had no transition game, as the ‘Cats were the faster team up and down the court. Instead of getting back on Defense, the Bruins spent too much time going for the ball, AFTER ‘Nova had already secured the Rebound —  Especially Josh Smith, who otherwise had a very good game, showing why he was so highly-coveted out of high school.  Smith was the best Bruin at helping on Defense, at which the Bruins were horrible in the 1st Half (but improved markedly in the 2nd).  Smith repeatedly showed great hands, and was very nimble under the basket.  Unfortunately, a couple of the cheap foul calls (that almost all went in ‘Nova’s favor), were called against Smith, forcing him to the bench for too much time.

Brendan Lane did a good job replacing Smith, but lacks the muscle and girth needed against a Big East team.  But Lane continues to work hard, and is usually in the right place at the right time.  Anthony Stover also contributed at Center, late in the game.  He exemplified the Bruins’ 2nd Half commitment to improved help Defense, getting back-to-back blocks during one especially inspired sequence.

But the mental toughness and never-say-die attitude was not enough to overcome ‘Nova’s superior talent level.  Even though Jerime Anderson played a surprisingly good game, the Bruin Guards were vastly outclassed by their counterparts.  The Cat Backcourt was able to penetrate to the hoop repeatedly, especially in the 1st Half, exposing UCLA’s difficulty in rotating on Defense.

Lazeric Jones had a pretty good game, and Malcolm Lee returned from injury to contribute, but Lee and Tyler Lamb did not contribute enough in the scoring column.  The Bruins need better outside shooting before they can compete with good teams, and before they can open up their foes’ Defense for inside scoring.  And Tyler Honeycutt is still trying too hard, always looking to make the highlight-reel pass.  He even blew a crucial dunk, because he was trying to get on Sportcenter.  Someone needs to tell him that he will get more exposure by WINNING than by hot-dogging.

I’m not going to bore you with statistics tonight — Just know that the Bruins need to improve their shooting, their passing, and their “Team” Defense (which DID actually improve in the 2nd Half).  One thing they did well was break the fullcourt press.  Coach Ben Howland had them prepared for that, with a very specific pattern of player movement and passes that worked every time but once to get the ball safely into the front court.  Unfortunately, the press helped slow down the Bruin running game, and eliminated the easy transition baskets (on which the Bruins rely).  Villanova Coach Jay Wright is no slouch either.

Wright was complimentary of UCLA at Halftime and after the game.  At the Half, he KNEW that the Bruins would stage a comeback, and after the game, he said that the Bruins were a good, LONG team that gave ‘Nova fits.  SURE, it was typical, politically-correct “Coach-speak,” which also makes HIS team look better, but there was also some truth to what he said.  When the Bruins tightened up their D, getting 7 blocks and not allowing too many easy baskets, they definitely showed that they can compete with a Top Ten team in an arena that was supporting that team.  If Lee gets better with an ankle on the mend, and if Matt Carlino returns — with a jump shot — and if Smith continues to get leaner and meaner, and if Honeycutt settles down, the Bruins will challenge for the Conference Championship.  Favored Washington lost twice this week — albeit to very good teams — showing plenty of vulnerabilities, including an inability to close.

UCLA plays next on Friday at 11:30am back in MSG, against a very impressive VCU team, who took #24 Tennessee down to the wire today.  They aren’t ranked, but they looked better than UCLA on Wednesday, so it should be another thoroughly challenging game for the Bruins — a lot more than just a tune-up for Kansas, who lurks next on the schedule.  One thing is for sure:  UCLA will be BATTLE-TESTED by the time the Pac-10 games begin.


Happy Turkey Day, to all non-trojans.  Everyone else can choke on their wishbones, for all I care.  I hear the Dillon-Baxter Funeral Home has excellent group rates for the Holidays.  By the way, Baxter has already been re-instated for the Notre Dame game, despite consorting with an Agent, right under Pat Haden’s office window less than a week ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same — And by “same,” you know that I mean “full of sh..tuffing.”