A heavy load of expectations was put on the freshman from Cameroon. It was hoped he could supply raw energy, strong rebounding, hardwood-controlling defense and opportunistic offense to a UCLA frontcourt badly in need of all those elements.
It never quite happened for Alfred Aboya. Arthroscopic surgery on both knees before the first game caused him to limp into a season of rehabilitation and slow development.
But the Bruins had another option. He’s not exactly a clone, but he sure seems to be one: another Cameroonian, another freshman forward, another player with high potential.
And Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has exceeded expectations.
On Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion in a game against Oregon, on a day the Bruins paid tribute to their past by honoring their four seniors in their last home game, Mbah a Moute reinforced the idea that he is a huge key to their future in leading UCLA to a 70-53 Pacific 10 Conference victory.
The game had all the familiar signs of trouble that have plagued the Bruins recently. They played another sloppy first half filled with turnovers, inconsistent offense and often-ineffective defense. Leading scorer Aaron Afflalo took only one shot, missed it and went to the locker room for intermission with a zero in his scoring column.
But in one of his finest performances of an exceptional season, Mbah a Moute seemed to be everywhere, filling holes and putting up numbers.
The 6-foot-7, 224-pound Mbah a Moute, the Pac-10’s third-leading rebounder, with a 7.8 average coming in, pulled down 10 rebounds Sunday. He also tied Afflalo, who finally found the basket in the second half, for the team high in points with 14. Mbah a Moute had no trouble finding the basket, making five of six shots and all four of his free throws.
He again demonstrated an ability to anticipate the flight of the ball, plant himself in the right spot under the basket and effectively box out.
Mbah a Moute, who has been playing organized basketball for only five years, says he became a zealous rebounder in high school at the Montverde Academy in Florida for a very basic reason: “I needed the ball.”
His Bruin teammates take comfort from Mbah a Moute’s presence on the court.
“You get to really let go and take your shot,” said Bruin guard Jordan Farmar, “knowing that guys like him and Alfred are down there.”
Mbah a Moute says he is not surprised by his season.
“That is why I came here,” he said. “I wanted to have an impact from the beginning.”
As was the case in their previous game, against Oregon State, the Bruins, who improved to 22-6 overall and 12-4 in the conference, were able to have a far greater impact in the second half than they did in the first. Stifled by the Ducks’ zone defense, UCLA shot 43.5% from the field in the first 20 minutes while Oregon made 54.2% of its shots and had a 28-23 halftime advantage.
But in the second half, UCLA shot 62.5% -- after shooting 75% in the second half against Oregon State -- while holding the Ducks to 29.6%.
As a result, the Bruins opened the second half by going on a 23-6 run to take a 12-point lead and largely coasted from there. The Bruins outscored the Ducks, 47-25, in the half.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said. “We played a fantastic first half with some of the best defense we have played. We didn’t have the legs in the second half, and we didn’t match their intensity. I think we were worn down a bit. We came up short on a lot of shots.”
The Bruins also tightened up their ballhandling. After committing nine turnovers in the first half, they had only two in the second half.
Aaron Brooks had 19 points to lead the Ducks (13-16, 7-10). The Ducks’ loss clinched sixth place in the conference for USC, which gives the Trojans a bye in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.
When the game was over, UCLA Coach Ben Howland had a scary prediction for Oregon and the rest of the conference concerning Mbah a Moute: “He’s only going to get better.”