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UCLA defends Pauley Pavilion to keep Pac-12 title hopes alive

UCLA’s defense keys a 13 point second half comeback against Oregon and walls off Oregon State for a vital home sweep.

Oregon v UCLA
Lonzo Ball leads UCLA basketball as well as he leads fast breaks.
Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

It’s ludicrous to say a 22-3 season was slipping away, but on Thursday night, it was hard to not feel that way.

As Oregon built a 13 point second half lead with 12 minutes left, it seemed like UCLA’s defense would once again prove to be its Achilles heel as it was in the losses against Arizona and USC.

The Ducks got whatever they wanted on offense in the first half. Oregon nailed corner three after corner three, drove the lane and finished with high-flying dunks. Dillon Brooks was stunting as he and his teammates were ruthless in the first half, starting the game with 11 points in 3 minutes and leading by as much as 19 in the opening 20 minutes.

When Oregon gets going, they are near impossible to stop, and their swagger shoots through the roof. Just ask Arizona.

UCLA looked stunned. While the Bruins fought back to cut the lead to 9 before halftime, they lost ground in the second half. Whenever UCLA threatened, Oregon beat them back. It looked like the Bruins would get their lunch money stolen again on a big stage at home like Arizona did to them.

Heck, even the cheerleaders were falling. Nothing was going well in Westwood.

Then with 12 minutes left, Steve Alford put Lonzo Ball on Dillon Brooks. With his defense, Ball put his teammates on his back to get the win.

This time, with Ball blanketing Brooks, it was Oregon who looked stunned, clearly flummoxed by a swarming UCLA zone defense and scoring only 4 points in 8 minutes. The open looks that they got in the first half were slammed shut in the second, and Oregon had no plan to counter. Their crisp motion offense ground to a halt behind weak screens and isolation plays.

Dillon Brooks didn’t score a single point over the final 12 minutes with Lonzo Ball covering him.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s offense cranked up the heat, and contributions came from everywhere. Thomas Welsh found his shooting touch to drop in 10 second half points. Aaron Holiday and Ike Anigbogu were masterful off the bench, scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds between them and sparking the defensive revival.

Holiday scored 6 straight points, an acrobatic layup with a foul and a three with 4 minutes left that gave UCLA a 72-69 lead they would not relinquish. Anigbogu swatted 3 blocks and finished multiple pick and rolls with thunderous dunks that sent Pauley Pavilion into hysteria.

Ball had 10 points of his own, and 5 no bigger than the ones that sealed the game in crunch time on two straight possessions.

Ball also grabbed 11 rebounds as UCLA won the rebounding battle decisively, 42-35.

TJ Leaf had a quiet game scoring - only 8 points - but grabbed 4 offensive rebounds that were crucial to the comeback. Bryce Alford didn’t score in the second half, but his threat from distance prevented Oregon from clogging the lane and allowed Holiday and Ball to penetrate and cause chaos.

UCLA dug deep on Thursday night.

Facing the specter of a disappointing home loss, losing a top tournament seed and being eliminated from the conference title chase, UCLA found its pride. They dug in deeper than many thought possible and shut down a powerful Oregon offense. The much (fairly) maligned defense finally matched the all-world offense like it had on the Washington trip, and it reaffirmed that this team can play enough defense to cut down the nets in Phoenix.

It was vital, too, as UCLA and Oregon are now tied for 2nd and one game behind Arizona. The Bruins needed to beat both Oregon and Arizona in rematches and get some help to earn a shot at the championship.

Job halfway done. A trip to Tucson looms large in two weeks after a visit from USC on Saturday.

We’ll only get one season of Lonzo Ball (and probably TJ Leaf in Westwood), but his ability to drag this team by the scruff of its neck like he did on Thursday is worth watching by itself.

It will probably prove necessary once again in March, and it will be worth the emotional roller coaster you’ll find yourself on then.

Sunday’s game against Oregon State was admittedly a much sleepier affair.

UCLA brought its defense again on Sunday, holding a woebegone Oregon State outfit to 27 first half points. Oregon State is threatening to go 0-18 in the Pac-12, and despite Wayne Tinkle being a good coach, the Beavers are thin on talent without Tres Tinkle. It’s a lost season in Corvallis that shouldn’t reflect poorly on Tinkle.

The problem was that UCLA only scored 32, as they missed open looks and shot just 3-13 from three-point range in the first half. It wasn’t a case of UCLA playing down to an opponent as much as it was UCLA just not making shots we’re accustomed to them draining.

The second half went much more according to plan, as UCLA shot 58% while keeping Oregon State in a headlock to cruise to a 78-60 victory. It was the 4th game in 5 where the Bruins kept teams under 71 points, 5 below its season average of 76.

Lonzo Ball led the way again with 22 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds. TJ Leaf had a fine game with 13 points and 9 rebounds, but no other Bruin scored more than 10.

In truth, they really didn’t need to. UCLA got 40 points in the paint and had their way with the worst team in the Pac-12. Wins against the bottom feeders count just as much as they do against the front runners.

A visit into Pauley from arch rival USC looms on Saturday before a trip out to the desert to take on Arizona State and Arizona. With 5 games to go, UCLA needs Arizona to lose once outside of its rematch to earn a share of the Pac-12 crown.

But first things first, the Bruins need to do something they haven’t done in nearly 2 seasons: beat Andy Enfield’s Trojans. It’s been 4 straight losses to USC, and none of them have been particularly close.

USC mollywhopped them a few weeks ago at the Galen Center, and USC’s freaky athletes and hot three point shooting on that night buried UCLA and sent them wobbling into a second straight loss.

UCLA needs to re-discover the pride in defense they’ve shown for the last 4 wins to break the losing streak to USC, or else that rematch against Arizona will mean nothing.

One important thing I forgot to mention from Thursday night: the cheerleader that fell twice recovered fully (and finished the game!).

This is the most important thing to come out of Thursday night, a night with the eternal Bill Walton on the call and legend Dick Enberg being honored: