Thursday, March 01, 2007

UCLA 53; Washington State 45 -- Bruins Clinch Second Straight Outright Pac 10 Championship

In 1994, the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. I watched every game of their seven game series with New Jersey in the Wales Conference Finals, and every game of their seven game series against Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Finals. That Rangers team had a knack for absolutely blowing their opponents doors off in the first 10 minutes of the game. Didn't matter who they played, they dominated from the opening face off. If you could weather that storm and hang in, you could beat them, but a lot of teams just wilted from the beginning, and that's why the Rangers were the best team in the regular season, and the best team in the playoffs.

This UCLA team has a similar trait. They come out and simply dominate teams in the first five minutes of the second half. They did it against Arizona a couple of weeks ago. They did it to Berkeley last week. They did it to Stanford on Saturday. And they did it again tonight. I said it before, and I'll say it again: UCLA lost to Stanford last month at Maples because they didn't compete in the first five minutes of the second half, and by the time they got it together, Stanford was rolling. They learned their lesson. Since then, they've dominated that five minute stretch, and it's been the key factor in their conference win streak.

Tonight, after trailing by one at the half, the Bruins came out and scored the first nine points of the second half, and they did so convincingly, on two layups, a dunk, and three pointer. The built an eight point lead that they would never relinquish. And they didn't just do it with offense. Their defense has an extra gear in the second half, and they found it tonight, ultimately holding the Cougars to 37.5% shooting. Derek Low especially had an off night. He is a difference maker, and tonight he simply couldn't find his range.

Aaron Afflalo led the way on the scoresheet with 14 points on 5-11 shooting. Darren Collison, in a bit of a shooting slump (for him) over the last few games added seven to go along with eight assists, many coming on pinpoint passes into the post. He's a big reason that Alfred Aboya chimed in with eight points of 4-5 shooting. Aboya gives me the impression that he's going to absolutely bust out next year. Don't ask my why. He's shown flashes of greatness this year, and it's just a matter of him putting it all together. If he takes that step, their front line next year is going to be absolutely sick with LRMAM, Aboya, Mata, and Love. That's assuming they get nothing from Keefe and Wright (and I think those two will contribute). That frontcourt will be dominant.

Give a ton of credit to Washington State. They have an excellent team, and for a defensive powerhouse, they don't play a boring style. Their low points-against isn't built on a boring zone and 35 second possessions on both ends. They play hard and really get after it. I think they're going to do some damage in the tournament, and until UCLA took them out of it, they really had a great crowd tonight. And yes, that paragraph was a lot easier to type considering the outcome.

Barring some catastrophic injury (which the selection committee will take into account), UCLA probably locked up a #1 seed tonight, and they're probably going to stay out west for the second year in a row. Now it's off to Seattle to finish the season and get ready for the Pac 10 tournament. Congratulations to the Bruins on their second straight outright conference championship.

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