In the time it takes to complete an eight-clap, UCLA went from rollicking to reeling in the second half Saturday.
One minute the Bruins had Pauley Pavilion roaring amid a series of layups and three-point shots that pushed their lead into double digits, the next they were trailing after surrendering a massive Oregon run.
It didn’t require an analytics savant to realize what had changed.
“Aaron was on the bench,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said plainly.
That would be Aaron Holiday, the Bruins’ most indispensable player and the driving force behind their late-season push toward the NCAA tournament. The junior point guard rarely comes out of games, except when he experiences foul trouble like he did against the Ducks, because his absence hurts his team across the board.
Holiday returned just in time to nudge UCLA to an 86-78 overtime victory that kept the Bruins (19-8 overall, 10-5 Pac-12) in a tie with USC for second place in the conference standings. He played 40 of the game’s 45 minutes.
It’s a bit unsettling to imagine where UCLA might be without its leading scorer, top distributor, best defender and most steadying presence. Holiday’s impact easily transcends his team-high averages of 19.4 points and 5.7 assists per game. If Holiday is on the court, his team’s chances of winning improve dramatically.
The Bruins are a staggering plus-177 when Holiday has played this season, meaning they have outscored their opponents by 177 points with him in the game (an average of 6.6 points per game). Advanced statistics compiled by UCLA also reveal that the team is 11.5 points per 100 possessions better when Holiday is on the court. The Bruins are plus-five for the season when Holiday is out of a game.
Holiday said he doesn’t pay much attention to plus-minus statistics or “even understand it that much,” preferring to quantify his contributions through a simpler measurement.
“If I go out and play hard every possession, I feel like that’s going to be great for our team,” Holiday said. “I just try to focus on playing hard and trying to help my team win, basically. Make shots, get them open shots and then just playing defense, really.”
Holiday does it all, forcing his coach to be judicious with breathers. Holiday’s 37 minutes per game are tied for 16th most in Division I and he’s played every second of four games. When the Bruins played a two-overtime game against Stanford last month, Holiday played in 48 of the 50 minutes.
“It doesn’t make you a good coach,” Alford said, “to understand: Keep Aaron Holiday in the game.”
Extended absences during UCLA’s two games against Oregon underscored Holiday’s value to the Bruins. After he picked up his third foul midway through the first half in Eugene last month and went to the bench for the rest of the half, UCLA’s deficit climbed from 12 to 17 points and the Bruins never recovered during a 94-91 loss.
UCLA was leading by 11 when Holiday was called for his fourth foul and departed with 11:45 left in the second half Saturday. The Bruins’ next few possessions went like this: missed layup, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed three-pointer, missed layup, offensive foul, missed three-pointer.
“There wasn’t really a secret to it,” Alford said of his team’s mini-collapse. “You could see the other team — they increased their pressure, they increased their traps, we turned the ball over, we didn’t get good shots, we didn’t defend. That’s how important Aaron Holiday is to us.”
By the time Holiday returned, with 6:53 left in the second half, UCLA had lost and regained the lead on a Thomas Welsh three-pointer. Holiday never came out again, making a floater that helped force overtime and then a three-point play during the extra period on a hanging floater on which he was fouled.
He finished with 29 points and was selected Pac-12 player of the week after helping the Bruins complete a home sweep of the Oregon schools. Alford said Holiday might be deserving of a bigger prize.
“In my mind, Pac-12 player of the year is one of two guys: It’s [Arizona’s Deandre] Ayton or it’s Holiday,” Alford said. “Obviously, Ayton is on the team that’s leading the league, and I think he’s very special and he’s had a special year, but nobody’s meant more to their basketball team than what Holiday has meant to us.”
Holiday averages a Pac-12-leading 20.9 points in conference games and is on the verge of becoming the eighth player from the conference since 1983-84 to average at least 19 points and five assists for the season. Five players who previously met that threshold were selected conference players of the year.
Alford seemed aghast that Holiday was left off the late-season lists for the John R. Wooden Award given to college basketball’s top player and the Bob Cousy Award that goes to the top point guard.
“I watch some of these guards that are on the watch lists and they don’t guard anybody,” Alford said. “They’re guarding the worst guard on the [other] team. He gets the best. … It doesn’t matter who we play, whoever the key guard is on that team, that’s who he’s defending and he’s done that all year long and he’s done it at a really high level.”
Holiday also brings a grit factor that’s reflected in his refusal to sometimes acknowledge his own fouls while playing one-on-one against his teammates. UCLA guard Prince Ali called Holiday “a hack” … and meant it as a compliment.
“He brings a different type of toughness,” Ali said. “He plays hard all the time. To be that leader, to play that hard, it rubs off on everybody.”
Maybe the best way to gauge Holiday’s value is wholly unscientific, using the uh-oh factor experienced by his teammates any time he comes out of a game.
“When he gets in foul trouble,” forward Kris Wilkes said, “you know, for me personally, it’s like dang, we need him.”