Bruins Make it Three in a Row

UCLA saved it’s best for last in, dominating Xavier most of the way in a 19-point blowout win in the West Regional Final. In their most dominant performance of the tournament thus far, the Bruins earned their third straight Final Four appearance, the first team to accomplish that since Michigan State from 1999-2001, and sit alone atop the list with the 19th Final Four in school history.

Before mentioning another big Kevin Love performance, UCLA left the door ajar in the first half with 10 turnovers and some missed opportunities on offense, allowing Xavier to hang in the game, trailing by five as late as the two minute mark in the first half before stretching it to 9 by halftime. With Collison and Westbrook still struggling, Josh Shipp hesitant to shoot, the forgotten man, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute stepped up. Battling a sore ankle the past few weeks, Mbah A Moute has struggled, but he owned the first half, leading UCLA with 9 points. He was active on the glass, the difference maker for the Bruins in the first half, finishing with a double double, 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Unlike Thursday, when Western Kentucky charged back in the second half, UCLA opened the stanza with a 15-4 run pushing the lead to twenty points, and never looked back. Ben Howland has the best defensive team I have seen this season, and they put the screws to Xavier in the second off, locking down Drew Lavendar and Stanley Burrell at the perimeter, and frustrating the Musketeers into tough, contested shots. Ben Howland earned his reputation with stingy defensive teams at Pitt, but this UCLA squad plays better team defense than any of his previous teams. Tough on the ball, defend the pick and roll to perfection with agile big men like and Love hedging the guard and recovering to defend the roll to the basket. What sets them apart is help defense – just when you beat your man and have a scoring chance the Bruins converge quick, adept at taking charges and blocking shots.

Love and Mbah A Moute controlled the glass, igniting transition opportunities for Collison and Westbrook, who excel at getting to the basket and finishing in the open court, protecting the ball with the body and accelerating to the goal. In the half court game, Love worked his magic from inside and outside. Rolling off high screens, the freshman nailed two big three-pointers, then he went to post, using his 260-pound frame to get good position and easy baskets. Bill Raftery, who along with Vern Lundquist forms the top announcing tandem in college basketball, pointed out the advantage of playing two point guards in the backcourt, a rarity in today’s day of rigidly defining the difference between the 1 and 2 guard. Both guards possess speed and plus dribbling skills, along with good shooting skills.

When Love has it going inside, mixed with solid shooting and transition opportunities by the backcourt tandem, and UCLA shoots over 50% from the field and does not turn it over (only 3 in the second half), they are tough to beat with that stifling defense. Saturday, Xavier could attest, going as far as saying they needed a subpar UCLA effort to have a chance, instead they saw the best of the Bruins.

Love is only a freshman in age, he displays savvy and poise, knows how to get good position, exhibits great footwork, and ranks among the best passing big men in college – not just on the long bombs out of bounds either. Not quite at the level of Tyler Hansbrough, Love is a tireless rebounder and ball hustler for loose balls. The small Musketeer lineup had no answer inside for Love, then again most teams don’t when he plays at this level. The fans chanted “One More Year” after Love collected the West Region Most Outstanding Player award. Before that, he has more work to do. UCLA’s season starts now, back in the same spot they reached the past two seasons when they could not close the deal on a championship, the only measurement that matters in Bruin basketball lore. Why will this year be different – perhaps a certain big man.

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