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UCLA sweeps through the desert from the inside

UCLA’s frontcourt dominates as the Bruins sweep ASU and Arizona and fly high into March Madness.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Arizona
Thomas Welsh pointing the way UCLA is trending.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The toughest part of UCLA’s season has been focusing praise in just one place.

Lonzo Ball is other-worldly. Bryce Alford is deadly off the ball. TJ Leaf is silky smooth, Thomas Welsh is rock steady and Isaac Hamilton has a flash of brilliance or two in him.

Let us not forget about Aaron Holiday, America’s most overqualified 6th man, kid terror Ike Anigbogu and dependable 8th man G.G. Goloman.

The temptation has been to focus on the backcourt, and with good reason. The four guards - Ball, Alford, Hamilton and Holiday - all average at least 13 points a game and 2.5 assists. All four shoot above 50% from two, and three of the 4 shoot above 40% from 3. You can stop one at the expense of at least two others.

But in this past weekend against Arizona State and Arizona, it was the frontcourt that secured both wins. TJ Leaf dominated a small ASU front on Thursday, and Thomas Welsh and Leaf cleaned up the boards against Arizona’s athletes to notch a huge victory in Tucson.

Ike Anigbogu and G.G. Goloman, though in fewer minutes, also played key roles in the road sweep, the Bruins’ third this season.

The plan on Thursday night against Arizona State was clear:

Get the ball inside.

The Sun Devils, though potent scorers, are not deep or very big. Obinna Oleka is the tallest at 6’8 of the five starters, and the Sun Devil bigs in reserve are either too small (Ramon Vila is 6’8) or too raw (Jethro Tshisumpa is 6’10 but averages 7 minutes per game) to make an impact.

For context, Thomas Welsh is 7’0, and G.G. Goloman is 6’11. The two shrimps - TJ Leaf and Ike Anogbogu - are merely 6’10. So for 48 minutes, UCLA kept Arizona State at literal arms’ length and weathered hot Sun Devil shooting to an easy 87-75 victory.

UCLA pulled the move you use on your little cousins when they try to punch you: put a hand in their face and watch them flail their little arms at you mercilessly, unable to connect on any punches.

Arizona State did not go down without throwing haymakers. The Sun Devils made 14 threes and shot 40% from distance, with Torian Graham making 7 of his own and scoring 28 points. Kodi Justice chipped in with 19 points on 5 triples of his own.

Arizona State’s starters played an incredible 199 of a possible 200 minutes (shout out to Ramon Vila getting that 200th minute). Bobby Hurley banked on his team going unconscious from the floor, and it was a lot closer to working than expected.

But UCLA was too big to handle on both ends. Arizona State shot just 39% for the game and struggled to shoot over the zone consistently. While they scored 22 points in the paint, they were also sent away 7 times, and Ike Anigbogu had 3 blocks of his own.

On offense, UCLA did as it pleased. TJ Leaf scored a game high 25 points on 11 field goals, none of which came further than 5 feet from the basket. Oleka and Kodi Justice were either too small or too slow to keep up with his post game. It was unfair and beautiful to watch, like your uncle when he bodied you up in the driveway.

He also had 9 rebounds, and UCLA outrebounded Arizona State 49-30, including grabbing 17 offensive rebounds that led to 31 second chance points.

Overall, UCLA rebounded nearly half of their misses and finished with 50 points in the paint. Ike Anigbogu finished with 12 points, 10 of which came on dunks and layups at the rim. Thomas Welsh only played 18 minutes but grabbed 11 rebounds, 6 coming on offense.

UCLA’s guards combined to shoot a woeful, yet inconsequential 9-30 from the field. The Bruins were simply too tall and too big for the Sun Devils, and winning the volleyball match that broke out on Thursday set the stage for an epic rematch against Arizona on Saturday.

UCLA and Arizona flew out of the traps.

The game started breathlessly, as both teams took less than 20 seconds on all but two of their combined possessions in the first 5 minutes. UCLA wanted to run, Arizona had the athletes to oblige, and a track meet broke out in the McKale Center.

For 15 minutes, UCLA had the slight edge over the Wildcats. UCLA’s zone defense jammed up Arizona and forced them into settling into jump shots. Unfortunately, Arizona made 52% of their shots in the first half, including 3/8 from three. Allonzo Trier was unstoppable, scoring 16 on 6 of 7 shooting, and UCLA had no answer to his drives or his shooting. It felt as if UCLA was giving Arizona all it could handle, and yet they still could not break away.

On offense, UCLA was treading water but was not swimming. The Bruins missed 13 of 17 first half three point attempts, but Lonzo Ball drove into the lane time and time again to allow Anigbogu, Welsh and Leaf to finish around the rim. Ball himself scored 9 points, but his and Welsh’s foul troubles late in the half allowed Arizona to close on a 16-5 run in the last 5 minutes to lead 43-39 into halftime.

Without Ball and Welsh, UCLA had a hard time snagging rebounds or finding rhythm on offense. Welsh had 5 of UCLA’s 11 rebounds, and the teams were even with him on the floor. When Welsh sat late in the half with 2 fouls, Arizona grabbed rebounds left and right and led 17-11 on the glass going into half.

In the second half, UCLA switched back to the 3-2 zone and shut down Arizona completely. It was stunning, almost as if the Cats had never seen a zone before. While Allonzo Trier continued to cook - he scored 12 second half points - his teammates stumbled, making just 7 shots as the Cats scored 29 second half points. Even more stunning was UCLA obliterating Arizona on the glass; the Bruins grabbed more offensive rebounds (9) than Arizona had total rebounds (7).

Meanwhile, UCLA found its offense on the interior. Welsh and TJ Leaf scored 8 of UCLA’s second half field goals and combined for 16 points and 7 rebounds, 4 on offense. Aaron Holiday shook off a poor first half and scored 10 in the second half, including two threes. UCLA’s most successful offense came from playing inside out and allowing its potent shooters to find open looks after penetration.

However, UCLA won this game on the back of its second half rebounding. The Bruins grabbed 19 rebounds, and 6 of the 8 Bruins in the rotation had at least 1 offensive rebound. Time and time again, even when Arizona played sound defense, UCLA hustled for the rebound to get another crack at scoring.

UCLA grabbed the offensive rebound on 9 of their 15 misses. They out-hustled and outworked Arizona on its home court and survived with a 77-72 victory. It was the signature win in Pac-12 play the Bruins needed, and while it may prove futile in the quest for the regular season conference title, it was UCLA’s 7th straight win.

UCLA is flying.

A renewed pride in defense has led to 7 straight wins at the season’s most crucial moment. Washington and Washington State visit Pauley Pavilion this week , and the Bruins are well positioned to finish Pac-12 play with 15 wins.

After Gonzaga’s loss on Saturday, a Pac-12 Tournament win leaves a 1 seed out West certainly within possibility. Both Oregon and Arizona are a loss ahead of the Bruins for the Pac-12 title, and unless they both collapse this week, UCLA will enter Vegas as the third seed.

No matter. This team has the look of a national title contender from the inside out.