How UCLA's Pressure Defense Kept Washington "Outside Of Their Rhythm"

UCLA junior guard Rebekah Gardner led the Bruins with 15 points in their 60-48 win yesterday. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

By this point, Pac-10 opponents know what to expect from the #8/9 UCLA Bruins: an aggressive, frenzied defense that comes in staggered waves of intense traps and deceptively soft pressure.

But that doesn't mean it's any less confusing when they have to play against it.

"It was not super aggressive and so it was kind of hesitating," said UW guard Kristi Kingma after Washington's 60-48 loss to the Bruins yesterday afternoon. "Like you would take a dribble and they would come at you and then you would take a dribble back and they'd stop. And so it was kind of confusing out there, whether they were gonna trap, whether they were gonna come back. And Georgia Tech was good prep for them, but I thought UCLA brought a lot more pressure. And we kinda anticipated that."

Washington handled the pressure well in spurts to take a 29-26 halftime lead, but UCLA's dizzying pressure ultimately wore them down, resulting in fouls and turnovers that were difficult to overcome. 

And that's exactly what third-year Bruins coach Nikki Caldwell wants to do to their opponents all season long: keep them in a state of uncomfortable uncertainty.

"We really take a lot of chances out of our full court man," said Caldwell. "Out of our trapping in the half court we look to trap to steal. We want teams to play faster than they normally are accustomed to. So that's part of our game plan - it is to turn you over...I think that to me also gets teams outside of their rhythm offensively and they'll make their game look choppy. "

It can certainly be ugly and games like today's win against Washington - or their 55-53 loss to Louisiana State University on Dec 28 - can make you wonder how this team is even ranked #8 in the nation.

But after talking to opposing players and coaches about actually playing against UCLA, what you have to appreciate that Caldwell isn't simply expecting to steal wins out of chaos; there's a method to this madness and that's exactly what makes it so dangerous.

 

UCLA's win in Seattle shared some surface-level features with their game against LMU - Washington is a battered team with nearly a full lineup of players on the bench in street clothes, they hung in there for about 25 minutes and then it slowly started to unravel. And although you have to appreciate Washington's effort, the turnovers were simply too much to overcome.

Key statistic: UCLA's mix of pressure and poise helped them win the turnover battle

The Huskies' season-high 25 turnovers should definitely be a focal point for why they lost the game - it's extremely difficult to beat a Top 25 team when you're giving the ball away on 41.95% of your possessions.

"I think giving up 29 points off turnovers is the difference in the game," said Jackson. "That and our lack of depth."

However, the reason the Bruins won this game was not necessarily the turnovers that they forced, but that they took better care of the ball in the second half after going into halftime down 3 points.

After committing 10 turnovers in the first half (32% of their possessions), the Bruins cut that number down to 4 in the second half (12.98% of their possessions). Meanwhile, the Huskies remained over 30% in both halves. Yet although UCLA outscored UW 14-2 in points off turnovers in the second half, it didn't result in increased shooting efficiency as one might expect - they had no fast break points in the second half and the pace stayed about the same meaning that they still had to execute in the half-court. In the first half and the first few minutes of the second half, they struggled with turnovers of their own. Caldwell made an in-game adjustment during the second half that solved that problem and helped the team become more patient and picked their spots better.

"They had to make four to five passes and get two reversals," said Caldwell. "So they started to play with a little more poise and a little more patience and that to me is a key to this team maturing because we can get trigger happy. And there was a stretch there where we were one pass, jump shot. One pass, jump shot. And that didn't play to our advantage. We got late in the clock, but then they did a great job of looking to penetrate the gaps and had a different sense of urgency."

So deliberately moving the ball deep into the shot clock cut down the amount of time they had to run their offense, but it also helped to wear down UW's defense which was actually quite strong in the first half. Patience and a tiring UW defense led to fouls and more fouls led to free throws. Ultimately, UCLA found points at the charity stripe with a free throw rate of 63% and hitting 12-of-17 attempts (70.6%).

While finding a way to win the turnover battle in the second half by cutting down their own turnovers was the most significant factor in this game, when they weren't directly creating turnovers they were still keeping UW in a state of confusion and holding them to 6-for-21 shooting from the field in the second half (28.6%).

Key player: Kingma's all-around effort not enough to overcome lack of depth

On multiple occasions throughout the game, UCLA defenders would bait UW players into spaces that appeared to be pressure-free from afar - in the corners just over halfcourt or along the sideline - but were far from safe once the ball arrived and they found themselves in the middle of yet another double team. There are only so many times a guard can pivot after picking up your dribble while surrounded by well-conditioned, athletic forwards before they either have to burn a timeout or make a rushed decision.

Kingma certainly did her fair share to keep the Huskies in the game with a 75% free throw rate and 7 rebounds to go with 12 points. But they lost their rhythm in the face of the defensive intensity and couldn't adjust well with so many players injured.

"I think for the most part we handled it alright," said Kingma. "It was just kind of weird because most of the time we didn't have two traditional ball handlers on the court, whether Morty and I were in and I'd be playing the four sometimes. Or Morty and Mercedes were in. It was just kind of weird combinations because of our lack of depth."

UCLA's confusing pressure combined with UW's lack of depth due to injury was as big a factor beyond those 25 turnovers that show up in the boxscore. As UCLA continued to confuse UW in the second half, the Huskies lost the synergy in the first half that led to their outstanding 62.5% shooting.

Yet underlying the state of confusion that UCLA imposed on UW is a methodical focus on taking away a team's strengths and forcing them to fight through the confusion from a point of weakness. And a large reason for UW's first half scoring efficiency was UW center Mackenzie Argens who dominated the paint in the first half with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting and 7 rebounds.

UW statistical MVP: UCLA shuts down Argens in the second half

You start to understand what makes Caldwell such a good coach when she's asked about how and why she makes an adjustment - while some coaches will talk around the point in a circle of euphemisms, Caldwell clearly articulates what she observed, why it's a problem, and how she solved it.

"I thought we didn't have our low block coverage and elbow coverage and so we went back to basics," said Caldwell. "We wanted them to have to skip the basketball and shut down the strong side and I thought they did a much better job of that in the second half. When you look at what Argens was doing to us...we really made a point to focus on and key in on her."

It's not that fans or media deserve these type of explanations, but her ability to communicate problems and solutions so clearly helps to understand why her players are able to so effectively grasp and execute such a relatively complex defensive scheme as a unit.

As Caldwell noted, Argens was scoring from everywhere - both in paint and on jumpers from the elbow. In the second half, UCLA shut that down and held Argens to four points on 2-of-3 shooting and finishing with a team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds. And with their post presence taken away, UW was forced to scramble.

"It just makes life for everybody else on the floor easier from a perimeter standpoint when you have an inside game going, when you have a presence going," said Jackson when asked about the impact of UCLA's shift in strategy. "That allowed us to penetrate and find a [Sarah Morton] on the weakside in the first half. In the second half, every now and again. It opens up a lot for us."

Yet aside from all the defensive intensity that is almost inevitably the focus on any UCLA game since Caldwell took the position is the fact that this team might be the most balanced in the Pac-10.

UCLA statistical MVP: Rebekah Gardner leads the team off the bench

The team's balance was quite evident tonight with Rebekkah Gardner coming off the bench to step with a team-high 15 points on 4-for-8 shooting (and team-high 76.84% true shooting percentage) for her team with leading scorers Jasmine Dixon and Darxia Morris struggling through off nights. Although UCLA's collective defensive effort has to be credited for the win, that Gardner came off the bench and accounted for 37.51% of the team's statistical production is an impressive testament to their depth.

"We can't go on the road and have Walker and Dixon in foul trouble in the first half," said Caldwell, referring to the relatively quiet nights for her stars. "But luckily Corinne Kosta came to play, our first-year, and gave us some big minutes. And we got some great minutes from our guard play - obviously Rebekah and Mariah Williams did a good job for us off the bench."

UCLA's bench outscored Washington's 27-5 led by Gardner, who came off the bench for the first time this season after starting the team's first 11 games.

"We needed to look at a different look," said Caldwell. "We wanted a different lineup. And obviously it worked because offensively she was on fire...We got a lot of different lineups that we can go to: we can go with a bigger lineup, we can go with a more athletic lineup, we can go with a smaller lineup. But the one thing is, what I try to teach them, is that when your number is called - whether it's the first 20 or the last 20 - be ready. And Rebekah was obviously ready today to answer the call of duty."

UCLA prides themselves on playing as a unit on both ends of the floor

With the instability of a changing lineup and their top three scorers (Dixon, Morris, and Walker) having off nights, it might be reasonable to assume that UCLA would fall into the state of confusion that Washington suffered from throughout the game. However, just as Gardner was ready to step up off the bench, what made this otherwise ugly game most impressive for UCLA is that they found a way to adjust and respond to adversity when they needed to as a unit, both defensively and offensively, in ways that don't necessarily show up statistically. It's not just that they're athletic, balanced and versatile, but that they clearly understand the system, how to play as a unit, and - most importantly - the value of doing so. 

"I think when we do make more passes and play together, we play better," said Gardner. "Everybody was getting the ball inside then outside and it made our offense just flow better. And it just helped us down the stretch."

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