I don’t think it’s crazy to say that today’s game against the USC Trojans was a must-win for the Bruins. I do think it’s crazy that UCLA is in a position where they have must-win games against USC in basketball, but that’s a story for another day.
The point is, the UCLA Bruins needed a win in the worst way today, and were able to secure victory in a back-and-forth 82-79 victory over the Trojans at Pauley.
This really was a defense-optional game for both teams; the Bruins shot 50.9% (29-57) from the field, and while USC shot a much-lower 42.9%, it should be noted that that came on 70 shots, as the Trojans were able to dominate UCLA on the glass (38-32 rebounding advantage, including 14-7 on the offensive glass) and took advantage of 12 Bruin turnovers, scoring 16 points off of those. For their part, UCLA was able to take advantage from a poor shooting night from distance from the typically-streaky USC shooters (30% on 9-30 attempts from 3) while shooting extremely well from distance on their own end (46.3% on 12-26 shooting). And while USC dominated the paint to the tune of 34-22, UCLA was able to routinely kill the Trojans with a bevy of midrange shots, repeatedly finding the hole in the USC defense for easy looks.
In big games, you want your best players to show up, and that happened for the Bruins. Aaron Holiday led the team with 23 points on 7-10 shooting, including 5-7 from distance as he almost single-handedly willed the Bruins back into the game late in the second half. He also threw in a team-high 9 assists and cleaned up his play in the second half, as he had 3 turnovers by halftime but only 1 the rest of the way. Thomas Welsh, meanwhile, threw in 21 points on 8-15 shooting, and put in the final 5 points for the Bruins, including a 3 while the game was tied at 77, and then hitting two FTs to give the Bruins a 3 point lead with 8 seconds left. Kris Wilkes threw in 13 points of his own, while Jaylen Hands had 9 as both freshman got their first taste of the Crosstown Rivalry. GG Goloman also had a solid game, as he had 9 points and a series of big momentum plays, including 2 monster blocks and a big slam dunk, and the UCLA comeback was keyed in part by replacing Prince Ali with Goloman on the floor.
In fact, if there’s one player that really didn’t play well, it’s Prince Ali. It’s hard to say what’s going on with Ali; since coming back from a knee injury that kept him out all of last year, it’s looked like a struggle for the sophomore for stretches this season and today was no different, as Ali was kept scoreless. Worse, Ali only saw 16 minutes of game time, and those who watched the game may have felt those were 16 minutes too many, as he looked out of sorts while on the court. When he’s on, Ali gives UCLA a solid scoring option, so UCLA’s tournament chances may still rest on getting Ali hot.
Overall, though, this was a competitive game that saw 18 lead changes on top of 12 ties. USC led the majority of the game, and that was the story for most of it, as the Bruins would claw their way back to a 1 point game before USC would extend the lead, but the Bruins finally put things together late. The final minute did see the return of Steve Alford, Tactical Neophyte, as he again chose not to foul USC with 8 seconds left while up 3, leading USC to get off 2 good shot attempts to attempt to tie the game, but luckily USC’s cold shooting from distance held out in the end.
If you’re an optimist, this could be the kind of victory that gets things clicking and leads the Bruins to a late-season run and eventual Steve 16 berth. For pessimists, this may feel like an empty win that does nothing but prolong the inevitable. Either way, a UCLA victory over just$c should feel good, no matter the circumstances.
- Player of the Game: Aaron Holiday – Big players play big in big situations, and Holiday had himself a game exactly when the Bruins needed him to. 23 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds showcased what an all-around excellent performance Holiday had, but maybe a better example would be the events in the second half. USC went on a 14-2 run to take a 9 point lead with 8:09 remaining. After a UCLA timeout, Aaron Holiday went on an 8-0 run (with an Alex Olesinski FT thrown in) to tie the game, and a Welsh basket 10 seconds later would give the Bruins the lead. Holiday was not going to be denied a victory in this game.
- Point of emphasis: 3-point defense – Don’t let the percentages fool you; UCLA did not do a great job of defending the 3-point line in this game, which might as well be a statement I could say in any UCLA game. USC shot almost 10% lower than they have on the season from distance, but that wasn’t due to increased defensive effort – USC’s 30 3FGAs is a testament to how many open looks UCLA was content to give up, especially when in the zone defense, as USC constantly took advantage of poor weak-side defense. At this point in the season, it’s hard to believe UCLA will ever become decent at defending the three, which means all I can do is just sit here and constantly mention this failure of defense.
- Underrated stat of the game: Bench points – Even after watching the game and looking at the stats, the biggest shock for me was that UCLA did not lose the bench points battle to the Trojans. Much was made of USC possessing superior depth to the Bruins, and to be fair 4 UCLA starters were forced to play over 30 minutes (including the entire game for Aaron Holiday) compared to only 2 for the Trojans, but even in limited time, the UCLA bench was able to outscore their rival’s counterparts 16-15. GG Goloman really stepped up when it was recognized how ineffective Ali was going to be, while Chris Smith and Alex O both chipped in a few key baskets. More importantly, the Bruins were able to make gains whenever the USC bench was on the floor, which kept them close enough to make their last push late. Despite everything, UCLA’s bench won their battle, and that was a key difference.
The Bruins now head on the road for their second rivalry game in 2 games, as they take on the Arizona Wildcats for the first and only time in the regular season on Thursday (and again, great job on scheduling there, Pac-12!). Tip-off is set for 7:00 PM PST.