Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saturday Roundup

It's a little late, but I was at the Blackhawks game today, so I have an excuse.


It's amazing what a team can do when it gets away from the distractions. Penn State was the right opponent, in the right place, at the right time, and Illinois responded by playing what may have been it's best game of the season. They relentlessly attacked Penn State's zone defense, and they dominated PSU on the other end of the floor, holding the Lions to 38% shooting. But the big advantage came on the glass, as Illinois enjoyed a 33-22 rebounding advantage.

On offense, the Illini found holes all over the PSU zone, and the beneficiary was Sean Pruitt, who finished with 20 points. Warren Carter added 17 of his own, six of those coming from long range, while Brian Randle tossed in 10, rounding out a starting front line that finished the game with each in double digits. Chester Frazier, who'd been 0 for everything lately, added a couple of three pointers, which paced a low scoring effort from the back court. Rich McBride had a tough time getting good looks, and he finished with just one field goal, although he did contribute six assists.

I still think it's going to take one win to get Illinois into the NCAA Tournament. Either a win at Iowa, or one in the Big 10 tourney ought to be enough, and neither is a sure thing. They'll probably have the fourth seed in the BTT, which means they could end up turning right around and playing Iowa again. At this point of the season, nothing would make Iowa fans happier than keeping Illinois out of the dance. And the Illini better show up in Iowa City with plenty of mental toughness, because Iowa's fans are really going to let them have it.


There are those who will argue that UCLA's loss at Maples Pavilion last month was the moment that really brought the team together. Not me. I think they've been together all season. I think that loss taught them a very valuable lesson: The most important part of the game is the first five minutes of the second half.

Time and time again the Bruins have gotten off to slow starts (and indeed, it was a much talked about issue going into that first Stanford game), only to come out in the second half and put the game away. At Stanford, the Bruins came out on fire and got up big early. After an ill advised shot at the end of the half, which led to a Stanford three pointer, the Bruins took a 12 point lead into the break. Stanford came out firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the second half, got and suddenly everything looked uphill for the Bruins. They couldn't recover, and Stanford put the Bruins away.

Cut to yesterday. UCLA didn't quite start the game like it did last month. Their lead generally hovered around two or three points for much of the first frame, and they took a three point advantage into the break. But that's when they put they lesson they learned in the first game into practice. 5:30 into the second half, UCLA had pushed a three point lead to thirteen, and pretty much held it there until the final horn.

Aaron Afflalo, in what may have been his last game at Pauley Pavilion, had a typically tremendous AA game with 20 points and six rebounds, while going 4-7 from beyond the arc. Beyond him, the Bruins were remarkably balanced offensively. Seven players (besides Afflalo) finished with five or more points, and no one else had more than 11 (LRMAM, who also added seven rebounds). Darren Collison keyed the defense with five steals, and for the second straight game, let others grab the accolades, finishing with ten points and six assists. The bench chipped in an extremely efficient 18 (Aboya - 7, Roll - 6, Westbrook - 5), on 6-9 shooting.

In another solid team effort, the Bruins forced twice as many turnovers as they committed (16-8), and they out rebounded the taller Cardinal 31-27, and in doing so, took away one of Stanford's biggest advantages.

It's been a season of solid team efforts, and that has them on the brink of their second straight conference championship, which they'll clinch with either one win in Washington, or a Wazzu loss. On the Pacific Northwest.

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