UCLA won the tip-off and scored on an alley-oop dunk to start the game. After that, the Bama defense held the Bruins to just one made fg over the next 14 minutes, building a 20-5 lead. While UCLA did not help their cause with a handful of unforced errors, most of the credit for the first half lead goes to the Alabama defense. UCLA only got a few open looks, and none from inside the perimeter. More importantly, Jimmie Taylor, Rodney Cooper, and Michael Kessens controlled the glass and limited their second chance opportunities.
I thought we actually played fairly well offensively in the first half. We had good spacing and ball movement for the most part, and had a lot of open, high percentage shots that just didn't fall. We weren't very good at finishing around the basket, and unfortunately, putting the ball through the hoop is kind of important in basketball. We probably should have been up 15-20 points at the half, but instead only took a 29-17 advantage into the locker room.
Steve Alford and UCLA made some nice adjustments at halftime. They worked the ball to their athletic bigs in the post and quickly drew Jimmie Taylor's 3rd and 4th foul. Taylor did a great job of defending the rim when he was in the game, but we really struggled to stop them in the post when he came out. We finally made the proper adjustment of switching to a zone, but not before UCLA was back in the game.
On the offensive end, we had no real inside presence and they started hedging the off-ball screens and bumping our cutters, which slowed the offense to a grind. For much of the second half, we were back to the old "high ball screen with 5 seconds on the shot clock" offense. Thankfully, Ricky Tarrant went off for 24 points.
I was afraid we put Taylor back in the game too early with 7 minutes left, but he played solid defense the rest of the game without fouling. Levi Randolph didn't have one of his better games, and he was uncharacteristically bad from the free throw line most of the night, but he came up big when needed. I thought it was critical that we never allowed UCLA to get the lead. Levi made an incredible contested jump shot to put us up 2 with just under 2 minutes to play.
I would still like to see a little bit more leadership in key situations in tight games. With the lead and about a minute or so remaining, Taylor turned the ball over trying to pass to Kessens on the perimeter. Tarrant and Levi cannot allow that to happen, somebody has to go get the ball in that situation.
We overcame another poor shooting night, 4 of 22 from 3 point range and only 18 of 30 from the line, but Ricky and Levi stepped up as we made 8 of our final 10 free throws to finally put the game away.
We had trouble getting the ball in bounds at times, which led to only having one timeout remaining at the end of the game. I thought we used that timeout too early, with a 3 point lead and around 30 seconds remaining. If UCLA would have scored there, we could have been in big trouble if we couldn't get the ball in bounds. To Coach Grant's credit, it worked out as the team executed the man to man defense he set up, switching on every screen and forcing a bad shot from UCLA.
This isn't a traditional national power UCLA team, but I also don't think they are as bad as many are making them out to be. This was their first loss to a team outside of the top 20. Yes, they looked horrible against Kentucky, but Kentucky is going to make a lot of decent teams look horrible. They don't have much depth, but they have some talented young players, some decent bigs, and are well coached. Hopefully they can continue to develop and this will ultimately be a top 100 win for us.
The crowd was great, I would estimate close to 13,000 actually showed up, which is fantastic for a Sunday night during the winter break, even against a somewhat down UCLA team. The Bruins probably had a couple of hundred fans scattered throughout, honestly I think we had more fans at their place last year than they brought here. Several former players were in attendance, Eric Washington was recognized on the video screen, Chris Hines was sitting behind the goal with a group of high school aged kids and they all appeared to be having a blast, and Andrew Steele was also there. There were a lot of school and church groups in attendance, whoever did the marketing for group sales for this game apparently did a good job. Justin Coleman's church group was there and sitting near us. The crowd was loud and stayed till the very end, hopefully seeing the home team win a close game will make some of those folks want to come back.
Unfortunately, the arena was apparently severely understaffed. We arrived 30 minutes or so before tip-off and immediately noticed the long lines for tickets and concessions. I understand many people weren't able to purchase their walk-up tickets until midway through the first half, and based on comments from people sitting around us, the lines for the concession stands were generally over 40 minutes. I never patronize the Coleman concession stands because in my experience they are overpriced with limited choices of very poor quality. Parking and post-game traffic is a complete cluster due to a number of factors including but not limited to: construction of the baseball stadium, incompetence of those directing traffic, and those stupid shuttle buses clogging the flow of traffic. They need to rectify some of these issues if we ever expect to draw large crowds on a regular basis.
Up next, the North Florida Osprey's come to Ttown for a 6 pm tipoff Friday night for the last non-conference game of the season. UNF upset Perdue, so we will need to stay focused if we want to avoid our annual season-killing non-conference home loss. The game will be televised on SEC Network. If your travels back from the Sugar Bowl take you through Tuscaloosa, there's no reason not to stop and take in the game. Happy New Year and Roll Tide.