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Working Smarter, Getting Better: How Far Could UCLA’s Defense Go in the Post-Season?

By now, everyone in the Pac-10 probably knows that UCLA is a pretty good defensive team, to say the least.

The team is so intensely focused on the fine details of defense that even when commenting on her 31 point, 20 rebound performance in UCLA's 91-75 win in Eugene on Saturday, forward Jasmine Dixon lamented her defensive effort.

"I would just say that I'm trying to be a blue collar worker, doing all the little things that coach needs me to do to help the team win - anything they need me to do, they can count on me," said Dixon. "But as far as this game, my defense was horrible. So luckily when the second half came I was able to pick it up."

Even with such a strong collective focus on defense, who would've thought someone could completely stop a Paul Westhead-coached University of Oregon team - the highest scoring team in the conference -- from scoring?

"Women’s basketball: UCLA beats UO" | The Register-Guard | Eugene, Oregon
UCLA outscored Oregon 41-9 in the final 14:11 for a 91-75 victory before 2,892 in Mac Court. The Ducks dropped their fourth straight game, when it had seemed for much of the afternoon that they would send Lilley, Cocks and fellow senior Lindsey Saffold out in winning fashion.

"I don’t have a lot of explanations for why things changed so violently," UO coach Paul Westhead said.

The Bruins endured a stretch of 5:16 in the second half without a field goal, falling behind 66-50 on Lilley’s big bucket. But UCLA then mounted a 23-2 run, scoring 14 straight as Oregon went 5:34 without a basket after taking a 68-57 lead.

"They must have got four or five layups on us, easy looks," said Oregon guard Micaela Cocks. "And then we had some tough turnovers which led to scores for them. And then the rebounding. All those things - it just really was just one after the other and a game changing moment for UCLA and they really took advantage. And that really put a damper on us and we ran out of gas."

After having seemingly having no answers through the first six minutes of the second half, suddenly UCLA seemed to have Oregon figured out, on both sides of the ball. On the surface of it, it seemed like a matter of the proverbial lid being put on Oregon's basket, while the ball just started bouncing UCLA's way. But there was something more to it than that.

"We just had a point in the game where we stopped scoring," said Westhead of what happened during the dry spell. "We had some looks and we missed, we had some looks and we missed, which gives UCLA some breathing room and then 12, 10, 8, 6 - had we kept being able to score it wouldn't have resulted like it did. But I would say, yes - it looked like we were spent. Spent not in the normal way that happens to us in an up and down game but spent nonetheless."

Normally when we think of a team being spent, we imagine physical exhaustion - being outmuscled, out of breath, or just a step behind. However, against UCLA it's a different sort of phenomenon. Although Oregon's lapse could certainly be a result of cold shooting or a mental lapse, those explanations hardly account for the masterful way that UCLA adjusted Oregon's schemes in the flow of the game.

This shift was more than merely motivational.

Shifts in momentum are simply attributed to increased effort, intensity, or mental fortitude, intangibles that are hard to grasp concretely. These explanations often reflect the motivational aspects of what coaches tell their teams in the huddle.

"I told ‘em we're not leaving her without a win," said Caldwell, describing what she told her team after falling behind early in the second half. "It's a matter of when they make that choice, I always think it's a choice. And I told them you can make a choice: you can continue to play poorly or you can get better. To me, you got a 50-50 shot there - get better. And they did. But again, it was us taking it one possession at a time, having great defensive pressure, and then executing on the other end."

Just as Dixon mentioned picking up her own defensive intensity, Caldwell speaks to the entire Bruins team seemed to pick up their intensity after falling behind. Nevertheless, to reduce all that the Bruins did to beat the Ducks to a "choice" characterized by intangibles seems insufficient.

For UCLA, it looks far more deliberate - almost like they bait a team into showing them their tendencies just to find their weaknesses and pick them apart in the second half. If you don't mind watching offenses sputter, it's actually a beautiful thing to watch.

"In the first five minutes of the game we came out really strong, we came out as the aggressor," said Oregon guard Taylor Lilley. "And then they picked up the intensity on the defensive end. And we just weren't able to just be patient and let the game come to us."

Lilley's statement might illuminate the real story -- teams don't just magically become impatient when they are up 16.

What UCLA actually did was stop penetration and shut down passing lanes.

Early on it looked like the Ducks would handle the Bruins press well, minimizing their effectiveness on defense. As a fan behind me said, "Theoretically we should be a really good press breaking team since we practice it." Oregon point guard Nia Jackson absolutely shredded UCLA's press in the first half - with her speed and athleticism, she was able to go right by oncoming defenders tight roping the sidelines or changing direction in mid court. She sees gaps in the defense extremely well and picks her spots to turn on the speed, drawing fouls that led to 6 first half free throws.

Caldwell put an end to that in the second half.

"Well Jackson, her foot speed is unbelievable - she's a kid that really does a great job at pushing tempo and she's one of the best in our conference," said Caldwell. "I thought Nina Earl came off the bench for us and she's one of our faster guards so she gave us a great look in matching her foot speed and not allowing her to get momentum. The other thing I told our kids was don't foul her - make her make the play, don't help off on the shooters, and so we kind of responded in that regard and played smarter, if you will, on her."

When the Ducks did get the ball into the halfcourt, the Bruins shut down all the passing lanes. In the first half, Cocks started off hot, scoring on a variety of drives, pull up jumpers, and three point shots. In the second half, everytime she got the ball there was a hand in her face.

"They were a lot more aggressive and aware of where I was," said Cocks. "They just switched out on any on balls, just didn't want to give Taylor or I or anybody open looks on the outside...We're going to see that every game so we have to be smart and stay aggressive."

It was a similar yet different story for Lilley - in the first half and early in the second half, she did most of her damage coming off a weak side down screen and using her quick release and great shooter's footwork to get herself open for shots. When UCLA went on their run that changed - they went to a man defense and just denied the pass.

"We went back to our man defense - our switching man - which allowed us to take away some passing lanes and get after it defensively," said Caldwell. "They still got some clean looks at the basket - the ball didn't bounce their way on some of those - but I thought our board play was huge in making them one and done."

And the defensive rebounding wasn't even the story in this game -- it was the offensive rebounding.

As a team, UCLA had more offensive rebounds than Oregon had total rebounds for the game. In the second half, the Bruins had 15 offensive rebounds to the Ducks' 3 and an astounding offensive rebounding percentage of 61.8%. They were led on the offensive glass by Dixon - 12 of her 20 rebounds were offensive.

"I just told her: when you bring that type of intensity and you're over on the offensive glass, Walker's going to follow your lead, then we'll get our guard play in there," said Caldwell.

The pounding UCLA gave Oregon on the boards not only led to easy points but just continued to wear the Ducks down mentally.

"They're really strong, really big," said Cocks. "And we're just fighting so hard just to get these rebounds and there's a lot of effort going into that and when you're not getting the rebounds it just, it's taking a lot out of you and then you lose's a mental thing too, definitely."

So to summarize, this was not just a team deciding to turn it on or the result of outstanding motivational speaking.

UCLA systematically dismantled everything Oregon was trying to do.

Perhaps it's hard for most people to get excited about the beauty of a sophisticated defensive system. But watching this team morph and adapt by almost diagnostically stopping the offense rather than reacting by merely digging their feet in and just playing harder or brutalizing their opponent is absolutely amazing to watch.

In effect, it's almost as if they baited Oregon into showing them their tendencies and then systematically took away every single thing they wanted to do on offense. Normally when you think about strong defensive teams, you think about physically intimidating teams, which at times the Bruins certainly are.

However, what makes this defense great is that it's more of finesse defense - they simply outthink their opponent and have the ability to respond to whatever they do. It is for that reason that Nikki Caldwell deserves very strong consideration as coach of the year in the Pac-10.

And as well as this defensive system seems to function and adapt now, Caldwell is still looking to upgrade the system before the post-season.

"There are some areas that we still gotta get better in defensively," said Caldwell. "We can't have those mental lapses. I thought we missed a lot of defensive assignments. Again, I'm still looking for this team to put together 40 great minutes of basketball. And when they do -- I told them, I said - we can go really, really deep in the tournament. But obviously we want to make sure that everyone is efficient. Again, we'll watch this tape, we'll break it down and we'll see how we can get better."

Even in not playing a full 40 minutes, UCLA's ability to diagnose problems and adapt and is the strength that has them creeping into top 25 consideration. And it starts with constant attention to little things from the coaching staff and the way in which they've gotten their players to buy in and respond to the circumstances of a game as a unit.

"I didn't even know we were that close," said Dixon of the votes UCLA has received in the top 25. "I take every game one at a time and so does my team - we're not worried about them rankings, that means nothing. ASU came in ranked highly and look where they're standing now. So just one game at a time - each game is as important as the last."

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