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UCLA holds down the home front

UCLA defends Pauley Pavilion and sweeps Washington State and Washington to start Pac-12 play.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at UCLA
Aaron Holiday led UCLA to two key wins to start Pac-12 play.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

After a tumultuous non-conference slate marked by off-the-court drama, growing pains on offense and yet another December win over Kentucky, UCLA kicked off Pac-12 play this weekend against the Washington schools. Given the lack of good teams in the conference (the state of Arizona excepted), UCLA could ill afford to lose winnable home games and put their tournament resume on thinner ice.

On Thursday, UCLA survived a barrage of three-pointers from Washington State to win 93-82. Aaron Holiday was the star of the show, scoring a career-high 33 points, 23 in the first half, and grabbing 11 rebounds and committing zero turnovers. As the team’s most experienced guard, best defender and best pure scorer, Holiday turned in a masterful 40 minutes (he didn’t miss a second) and showed just how capable he is to take UCLA far this season.

Thomas Welsh and Jaylen Hands were also standout performers on Thursday, especially in the second half as the Cougars never let UCLA pull away completely. Welsh had yet another double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds over a small Cougar frontline. Hands finished with 19 points, including 8 straight in a 13-2 run late in the second half that saw UCLA across the finish line.

Washington State stayed alive on the back of fine three point shooting. The Cougars finished 14-35 from distance and took full advantage of the one matchup advantagve they held over UCLA. A team that shoots as many threes as Washington State does (they take the 12th most 3s per game nationally) will always have a chance against a UCLA defense that sags and allow teams to bomb away from three (teams shoot 26 triples per game against the Bruins). Carter Skaggs hit 5 in the second half alone as he dragged the Cougars to nearly overtake the Bruins.

In the end, UCLA was too big and too good on offense to lose the Pac-12 opener. UCLA dominated the boards, grabbing 43 rebounds to the Cougars’ 30 and hitting 26 of 33 free throws. While not a perfect performance, UCLA was halfway to one of the more manageable home sweeps on its schedule before facing Washington on Sunday.

On New Year’s Eve, UCLA came out against Washington as if they had more important plans in the evening than a piddling basketball game. The Bruins struggled against the Huskies’ zone defense, and their own lackadaisical defense led to a 9 point halftime deficit and a 43-29 hole to climb out of early in the second half.

Washington looked vastly improved from last year’s 9-win outfit, even without Markelle Fultz. Mike Hopkins has installed the Syracuse-style zone defense he learned under Jim Boeheim, and there is an actual offensive scheme unlike previous teams under Lorenzo Romar. Noah Dickerson dominated the frontcourt, and while the Huskies shot just 39% in the first half, their defense forced UCLA into too many turnovers and transition buckets.

However, from 17 minutes on, UCLA stormed to a 45-10 closing run and won going away, 74-53. UCLA’s defense was spectacular in the second half, picking up man at 3/4ths court and dropping into a 1-2-2 zone that Washington could not shoot over. The Huskies finished a staggering 2-27 (7%) from three and missed twenty-one consecutive three-point attempts. It was just stunning offensive ineptitude, and the Huskies wilted. Washington made just 6 of 35 shots in the second half and finished at 28% for the game.

UCLA was not especially lethal shooting either (just 43% overall), but the Bruins turned defensive pressure and turnovers into quick transition points. Kris Wilkes led UCLA with a career-high 21 points, and his length at the top of the 1-2-2 zone was problematic for Washington in the second half. Aaron Holiday chipped in with 14 second half points after going scoreless in the first 20 minutes.

One on hand, UCLA’s first half cannot be ignored. UCLA looked completely lost schematically and played without much effort against a hungrier Huskies team. It was a sign of a poorly coached team that is prone to mental lapses that will prove deadly against better teams like those in Arizona. There is no way a team that shoots just 39% in the first half like Washington did should hold a 14 point lead like they did early in the second half.

On the other hand, Steve Alford deserves credit for switching to the zone defense in the second half. Washington looked feckless against it, and the Bruins swarmed the perimeter and cleaned up on the glass. In truth, UCLA should play mainly zone the rest of the season. While it is frustrating that a team as athletic as UCLA cannot play competent man defense, the team clearly looks more engaged in zone. The guards communicate better with each other, and the length of Prince Ali, Holiday and Wilkes does enough to prevent post entries to keep Thomas Welsh out of foul trouble.

As UCLA navigates the Pac-12 and tries to keep pace with Arizona and Arizona State, its defense will have to carry the load on the days when the offense bogs down. A 1-2-2 zone might throw teams off just enough to allow the Bruins to run in transition and make a push for Steve Alford’s first Pac-12 championship.