UCLA viewed the opening of the Pac-10 schedule as a second chance, a new beginning, a rebirth of sorts.
Well bust out the shower presents, these baby Bruins have arrived.
After a stunning shooting performance in the first half, UCLA held on to defeat visiting Arizona State, 72-70, in the Pac-10 opener at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday afternoon.
Riding the hot hand of senior forward Nikola Dragovic, who found a comfort zone in the corner and shot 5-for-5 from the 3-point line in the first half for 16 points and 23 for the game, UCLA shot 83.3 percent from the field and hit 8-of-10 threes.
With guards Jerime Anderson, Michael Roll and Malcolm Lee penetrating the lane and kicking out to the perimeter, the Bruins got uncontested looks.
Even better, they made them.
“Our attack of the zone was good with Mike, Jerime and Malcolm,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “We should be a good team against the zone. I expect us to be a good shooting team. But 15-for-18 in a half? I didn’t expect that.”
And Arizona State did not expect UCLA’s zone defense.
Shocking just about everyone in the gym – including himself – Howland employed a 2-3 zone defense for much of the first half, after the Sun Devils opened with a 14-9 lead with sound perimeter ball movement.
The Bruins have dabbled in the zone this season for the first time since Howland’s first year, though not to the extent that Arizona State saw on Thursday.
“I thought hell froze over,” said Roll, who had 12 points. “They were just making some shots and in the timeout he said, ‘Let’s just go to zone for one play.’ We were effective with it and we tried it again. They were struggling with it – nobody in the world expected Coach Howland to play zone. It was all kind of us players out there all talking – we had them a little confused by it.”
In the second half, the Sun Devils cut into the lead by flashing the high post as UCLA’s guards had trouble bouncing back out to the perimeter. After building a 13-point lead with just under 15 minutes to play, the Bruins watched Arizona State slowly chip away, though the Sun Devils never regained their early lead.
“Their coach really adjusted well – like in any zone, the weak parts are in the middle,” said Lee, who added 16 points. “They started exploring it, and started getting it in the middle and having everybody collapse. I definitely credit their zone in the second half – they really picked up their energy; you could tell they had an urgency because they were down.
“But that’s all they did, adjust to us, and every good coach will do that.”
In a way, Lee was talking about his own coach, as well.
Howland said he had no plans to employ the zone defense against Arizona State, but the Sun Devils seemingly picked off the Bruins one by one at the top of the key and worked the ball around for open looks.
Howland might not have planned to play such a foreign defense; he just needed to.
“I had no expectation to play zone going into the game,” Howland said. “They were scoring so easy on our man that I wanted to make an adjustment. It really did stun them. I mean, UCLA playing zone? We did a good job in it matching up.”
As the Sun Devils mounted their comeback, the Bruins moved back to man-to-man defense and the game slowed down. Arizona State tried to cut UCLA off by sending the Bruins to the foul line – their biggest weakness, as the team shot just 60.7 percent on free throws – but the early lead proved insurmountable.
“It was a combination of them making every shot – usually teams don’t even shoot 83 percent in warm-ups or shootarounds – and our defense wasn’t very good,” Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek said. “Dragovic hits that corner three that he’s fouled on, and that’s a tough shot. Then there were some other shots they took where we missed coverages and didn’t do the things we were supposed to do.”