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UCLA stays undefeated in Big Ten play

Ohio State was a tough nut to crack, but the Bruins eventually broke through to move to 12-0 on the season.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State vs UCLA
Aaron Holiday was superb once again as the most overqualified 6th man in America.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA beat Ohio State 86-73 on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas, beating their third Big Ten team on the season (Nebraska and Michigan were the others).

In a similar fashion to the Nebraska game, this was one of UCLA’s lesser performances of their twelve games this season. The game tipped off at noon, and much like you and I look hungover and woozy in Vegas on a Saturday at noon, the Bruins were sluggish out of the gates.

Ohio State, a good team with experience and a smart coach in Thad Matta, were disciplined and stuck to the game plan of getting back on transition defense to prevent the Bruins from running. While it meant the Buckeyes effectively conceded the offensive glass - UCLA outrebounded Ohio State by 10 overall - the payoff was allowing fewer runouts for the Bruins.

It worked, especially in the first half, as UCLA turned the ball over a dozen times and looked out of sorts against the Buckeyes’ length and defensive discipline. While the Bruins did shoot above 50% in the first half, the game stayed close because of the turnovers. The Bruins’ offense was static, and the dizzying motion that has characterized this season went missing.

On defense, the Bruins were fine in halfcourt sets, but they were hurting themselves with the turnovers. The Buckeyes turned those turnovers into points, and the Bruins were also fortunate Ohio State left their three point shot in Columbus. Outside of Marc Loving, who went 3-3 from deep in the first half, Ohio State went 0-11 in the first half, and as a team, the Buckeyes shot 5-24 for the game.

And yet, the Bruins still led 40-37 at halftime, despite the turnovers, against an NCAA-caliber team that was executing its game plan to perfection.

That’s the kind of season it’s been so far. UCLA will almost certainly lose a game at some point, but Bruin fans have to be ecstatic that the team can play poorly and still be ahead of NCAA tournament caliber competition.

After halftime, UCLA’s offense started to pick up. The cuts were crisper, the pace of play sped up, and the Bruins jumped out to a quick 12 point lead at the under-16 timeout. Ironically, UCLA missed its first four three-pointers after the break, even though all four looks were clean.

On the night, UCLA shot under 50% from the field and under 33% for the game, which constituted one of their worst shooting efforts this season, and yet mere mortal shooting teams would be more than okay with 48% shooting overall.

As the second half wore on, Ohio State hung around, staying within 13 to 8 points of the Bruins, and even cutting the UCLA lead down to 6 with under 6 minutes left. However, unlike the last Big Ten game, where the Bruins punished Michigan by scoring at will to end the game, the defense carried UCLA home this time. As Steve Alford went to his four guard lineup - featuring Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball and Aaron Holiday around TJ Leaf - his team’s zone defense, ball handling and free throw shooting improved to close the game out.

The Buckeyes were held without a field goal for the last 4 minutes as UCLA ground out a win against a good team on an off day. The aptly named “Guards Against Humanity” choked the life out of Ohio State at the end of the game to seal the win.

(credit Daily Bruin senior sports writer Matt Cummings for the sweet nickname)

For UCLA fans, there is a lot to like and take away from Saturday, even as the offense struggled to get going to the heights we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

The biggest was the zone defense. Much has been made of the Bruins’ defense being their Achilles heel in any title run, and any team that starts Bryce Alford and TJ Leaf will definitely be liable to defensive struggles. However, Steve Alford deserves a lot of credit for deploying the 2-3 zone on Saturday. Ohio State was absolutely befuddled by it on every possession, and whenever they got shots up against it, they were contested three pointers they missed.

Most importantly, in stark contrast to last season’s discombobulated defense, UCLA’s zone looked discipline and well-coached. That will be a huge asset going forward against teams that struggle to shoot like Ohio State.

The other main takeaway was the continued fantastic play from Aaron Holiday, the most overqualified 6th man in America. Holiday led the Bruins with 20 points alongside Bryce Alford, and while his three ball struggled (he “only” went 2-6, well below his otherworldy 51% season clip), he came up huge with free throws down the stretch that iced the game.

As the first guard off the bench, he can play point alongside Lonzo Ball or off the ball. He guards the leading scorer and goes full throttle in his shifts. He also locked up on defense in the front 2 of the 2-3 zone that stifled the Buckeyes at the end of the game.

For as well constructed as this team is, especially with Ball and Leaf, Aaron Holiday will be the most important piece the rest of the way. This team only goes about 8 deep, maybe 9 when Prince Ali returns, but Aaron Holiday’s versatility unlocks so many doors for Steve Alford.

As versatile as he is, he’s also just playing exceptional basketball, and more and more people are beginning to notice as the Bruins head into conference play next week against the Oregon schools.