When the UCLA Bruins are operating in unison, performing defensive choreography with waving hands and sliding feet, when they are taking shots in rhythm -- a staccato pass, catch, pump, shoot, beat -- they become a good basketball team.
And so they were Sunday afternoon, in a noisy, hostile Joyce Center, with a large national-television audience taking notes. In a key nonconference contest, the Bruins slammed Notre Dame, 75-65. They built a lead early over the Fighting Irish, expanded it carefully, let go of it a little but never lost their grip.
Making a trip halfway across the country as they were making their final push in the Pacific 10 Conference had some players mumbling earlier in the week. It’s cold in South Bend in February. It’s gray and drab and a four-hour plane ride away.
But this game carried national significance. UCLA (16-9) and Notre Dame (16-9) are fighting for those elusive NCAA tournament at-large invitations. Winning a road game against a Big East opponent will matter in a couple of weeks.
“We beat a team with a high RPI ranking, a top-50 team on the road,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “Notre Dame will go to the NCAAs.”
Five UCLA players scored in double figures, and freshman Arron Afflalo was the leading scorer for the second game in a row. His 17 points came on only five shots, and Afflalo added four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Senior Dijon Thompson had his seventh double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Point guard Jordan Farmar was in control with 12 points and seven assists.
“This is a great win for us,” Howland said. “To come in here and play against a very good team that has beaten UConn, Villanova and Boston College this year, we’re playing our best basketball right now and that’s what you want to be doing at this time of year.”
The Bruins broke the game open with a 14-1 run late in the first half. With UCLA leading, 25-21, Brian Morrison (12 points on four-for-seven three-point shooting) started the Bruin streak with a 24-foot three-point shot on a rifle pass from reserve forward Matt McKinney. By the time the Bruins were up 39-22, Morrison had made another three-point shot, Josh Shipp had one and so did Farmar. The only two-point field goal in the run was a goaltending call on a Farmar layup. UCLA made 14 of 23 three-point shots in the game (60.9%).
Farmar said it was a combination of good defense and smart shooting that helped UCLA open its lead.
“We shot pretty well, we guarded pretty well,” Farmar said. “We shared the ball, and our shots came out of the offense. I only took one shot in the second half, and everybody put their egos aside.”
By halftime the Bruins were ahead, 41-26, and the lead grew to 20 points, 59-39, with 10:02 left in the game on another Morrison three-point basket.
The Fighting Irish made one last push. They stole back-to-back inbound passes under the UCLA basket and made two layups to cut the lead to 63-51. It seemed Jordan Cornette had stolen a third, but he was called out of bounds before getting a timeout. The Notre Dame bench was called for a technical foul when several coaches stepped onto the floor to protest.
Thompson missed both technical free throws, and Farmar was called for an offensive foul on the ensuing possession.
When Irish guard Chris Quinn (17 points, six assists) floated high for a one-handed layin with 6:23 left in the game, UCLA’s lead was down to 62-53 and the crowd was on its feet.
But only for a moment. Moving lightly on his big feet, 7-foot center Michael Fey took a perfect pass from Afflalo and dunked with authority. A Notre Dame turnover resulted in an Afflalo layup and once up by 14 again, the Bruins were safe.
As the last seconds ticked off, Farmar walked toward the bench. “Great job,” Howland told him.
“This is definitely our best back-to-back effort,” Afflalo said.
“We beat USC good, and we didn’t take a step back. We’re a little older and settling down.”
And at just the right time.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
UCLA shot better from three-point range than from inside the arc or the free-throw line:
*--* UCLA Notre Dame 2-pointers 10-29 (.345) 18-41 (.439) 3-pointers 14-23 (.609) 7-22 (.318) Free throws 13-22 (.591) 8-16 (.500)