After giving up 48 points in the first half Thursday night against Oregon, UCLA men’s basketball looked like it was headed for an even worse showing early in the second half.
Coach Steve Alford called a timeout less than three minutes into the latter period. His Bruins had already given up 11 points since coming out of the locker room.
Alford did the math.
“We’ve played three minutes and they scored 11 – we’re going to give up 70 (in the second half),” Alford told his players. “This is embarrassing.”
The message worked.
The Bruins wouldn’t give up anywhere near 70 points in the half, allowing less than half that number as they turned in perhaps their best defensive showing of the season down the stretch of Thursday’s comeback win over the Ducks.
There were plenty of impressive offensive plays – freshman guard Lonzo Ball’s dagger of a stepback 3, sophomore guard Aaron Holiday’s and-one lay-up, freshman forward T.J. Leaf’s reverse dunk.
But, in a development that’s been rare this season, the defense made the difference for UCLA.
The Bruins held the Ducks to just 33.3 percent shooting in the second half. And, after switching from a zone back to man-to-man defense, they allowed just 12 points over the final 12 minutes as they came back to take the lead and win.
“We got back in it because of our defense,” Alford said. “That’s maybe one of our first games all year where I can say it was really our defense more than it was our offense that got us going tonight.”
Part of the improvement came from the decision with around 11 minutes left to switch freshman point guard Lonzo Ball onto Oregon star Dillon Brooks.
Brooks, who made his first four shots of the second half, including three from downtown, failed to score over the final 15 minutes. He missed his last five shots, four of them while matched up with Ball.
UCLA’s 6-foot-6 freshman point guard harassed the 6-foot-7 Oregon forward into a couple off-balance looks.
And even when Ball got out of position, as he did on one possession late in the game, his excellent length allowed him to contest Brooks’ shot.
“He’s a great defender, actually,” Holiday said of Ball. “We knew he was going to stop (Brooks) once he got on him, and we just had to help as much as we can.”
The rest of the Bruins did just that.
There was a six-minute stretch in which the Ducks scored just one point, a four-minute stretch in which they went scoreless. The game’s sole lead change, when UCLA jumped ahead for good at the four-minute mark, came in the midst of an 0-for-8 shooting streak by Oregon.
With the defense shutting down the Ducks, the Bruins were able to cut into the lead on the other end, Pauley Pavilion growing louder and louder with each basket and each stop.
“Our fans were tremendous,” Alford said. “In my four years here, Pauley hadn’t sounded like that. That’s been the best environment that one of my teams has had a chance to play in.”
And finally, with the game hanging in the balance, Ball made a pair of clutch plays at the offensive end, blowing by Duck guard Dylan Ennis for a layup with 70 seconds left, then launching the SportsCenter-worthy step-back three over Ennis with 32 ticks to go.
“It’s just who ’Zo is – ‘Zo figures out how to win games, that’s what makes him a special point guard,” Alford said. “He’s just got that feel, and I trust him.”
As for Ball’s trust in himself, no one would question that.
“I don’t get nervous,” Ball said. “It’s the game of basketball, that’s what I’ve been working on my whole life. I credit my dad. He raised me up, taught me pressure isn’t about anything on a basketball court, it’s about different things in life.”
Burst off the bench
Perhaps lost amid Ball’s heroics was the play of Holiday, whose 15 points off the bench included a crucial six-point sequence that completed the comeback and gave the Bruins the lead.
With five and a half minutes to go and UCLA trailing by four, Holiday received the ball from freshman forward T.J. Leaf in transition. Gliding toward the basket on the left wing, Holiday jumped between two Duck defenders and drew an and-one on a gorgeous reverse lay-in.
He knocked down the free throw and, two possessions later, drilled a 3-pointer to give his team a lead it would not relinquish.
The Bruins outscored the Ducks by 14 points when Holiday, who was named game MVP honors from KenPom.com, was on the floor.
Anigbogu also provided a big impact off the bench, tallying nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 15 minutes as UCLA avenged its December loss at Oregon.
“I felt like I needed to come in and motivate my team, hold the rim down – that pushed me,” Anigbogu said. “And I wanted to get revenge, too.”