Steve Alford started his postgame remarks Sunday with a joke about his team’s defense, referencing an erroneous box score that lay on the table in front of him.
“Best defense of the year,” the UCLA coach cracked, “holding them to 36 points.”
It took just two questions from reporters about that defense for Alford’s mood to sour a bit, even after the 10th-ranked Bruins surged past Oregon State, 78-60, at Pauley Pavilion thanks to a smothering second-half effort triggered by traps and double teams on the Beavers’ best players.
Alford was asked what made his team’s press effective and then got a little snippy after a follow-up question about what the Bruins had done different defensively the last few weeks.
“There’s obviously been a lot of talk about our defense, which, after doing this for 26 years, it’s almost comical, to be honest with you, because other teams aren’t critiqued like our team is,” Alford said after the Bruins improved to 23-3 overall and 10-3 in the Pac-12 Conference. “We’re 23-3. I can find you teams all the way across the country that have our record or less than our record that people want to talk about their defense, but if you looked at teams that have played us, they’ve come in with one defensive efficiency and when they leave it’s a little bit different, so it’s what you hang your hat on.”
Alford wasn’t finished. Not even close.
“It’s who you are as your identity and our team is a very efficient offensive team,” he said. “In fact, it’s No. 1 in the country, it has been from Day 1. So, yes, do we want to continue to improve defensively? That’s a huge key for us, but we’re not all off a sudden going to start playing in a 50-possession game to hold people in the 50s. That’s not what we’re going to do.”
What the Bruins did Sunday was continue a defensive resurgence that has coincided with their four-game winning streak. They have held their last four opponents to an average of 71 points, five points better than their season average.
After scoring a season-low 32 points in the first half, UCLA used some backcourt traps to change the pace. The Bruins forced one turnover that led to a Lonzo Ball three-pointer in transition and pushed their lead into double digits for good only 3 1/2 minutes into the second half.
“Just trying to speed the game up,” Ball said after finishing with game highs in points (22) and assists (nine) while committing only one turnover. “We know Oregon State likes to control the game a lot like that, but the press was just to get the tempo up.”
The Bruins also continually double teamed Oregon State forward Drew Eubanks and guard Stephen Thompson Jr. whenever he came around a screen with the ball. Thompson finished with 18 points and Eubanks had 13, but it wasn’t nearly enough for the Beavers (4-22, 0-13), who made only 40.4% of their shots.
TJ Leaf collected 13 points and nine rebounds as the only other Bruins player to score in double figures, a rarity for a team with six players averaging double digits in points.
UCLA has tightened its defense since a players-only meeting to address that topic after a loss to USC late last month, but a bigger factor may have been a change in the practice plan. The Bruins have reverted to practicing with split squads over the last two weeks instead of having their starters go up against a team of exclusively reserves.
Ball has also been more assertive as part of UCLA’s efforts to increase its ball pressure. He held Oregon’s Dillon Brooks scoreless over the final 15 minutes of the Bruins’ comeback win Thursday and was again one of the most active players on the court against the Beavers.
“You feel his presence when he does that, so it’s been a big part of our defense,” UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said. “In the Oregon game, the way he guarded Brooks down the stretch, I mean, that’s what he’s capable of.”
UCLA learned earlier in the weekend as part of a sneak peek at the NCAA tournament brackets that it would have earned a No. 4 seeding had postseason play started Saturday. Steve Alford didn’t seem particularly pleased, noting that his team had notched victories over top-five opponents Kentucky and Oregon, giving it a resume a few other highly seeded teams could not match.
“If anything,” Alford said, “it’s a little motivation for our guys.”
Kind of like questions about their defense.