Reporting from South Bend, Ind. – As if Ben Howland needed to say it again, the UCLA coach reiterated this week that his program is built on defense.
Then his team went out and proved it — but not in a good way.
On a Saturday afternoon when the Bruins had one of their better offensive performances of the season, they could not make enough stops or grab enough defensive rebounds and lost, 84-73, at Notre Dame.
“They are a hard team to defend because they spread you out,” Howland said of the Fighting Irish. “When you break down, they make you pay.”
The difference showed in the latter minutes of the first half when Notre Dame overcame an early deficit with offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
It showed again in the first minutes of the second half, when the Irish quickly stretched their lead and were never in jeopardy again.
“That’s definitely the key,” UCLA guard Malcolm Lee said. “You’ve always got to win the first five minutes of the second half.”
The nationally televised loss puts the Bruins at 3-7, their worst start since the 1945-46 season, which began 2-13 under John Wooden’s predecessor, Wilbur Johns. Notre Dame is 10-2.
“UCLA came out and jumped on us a little bit and we really responded well,” Irish guard Ben Hansbrough said. “We just made big shots when we needed to.”
Coming into Saturday’s game, the biggest worry for UCLA had centered on Notre Dame’s big man.
As the fifth-leading scorer in the nation, forward Luke Harangody is tough enough to handle when your team is at full strength. The Bruins had to guard him without the help of senior forward James Keefe, sitting on the bench in a sweater and jeans because of a dislocated shoulder.
Howland had mused about packing the lane with a zone defense but said Notre Dame would be too lethal from the perimeter.
Instead, he resorted to a variety of players, sending Nikola Dragovic, Brendan Lane and even a switching guard, Michael Roll, at Harangody.
And it worked. At first.
The Notre Dame star missed his first four shots, going scoreless for much of the first half as UCLA complemented defense with hot shooting by Roll and Lee to open a six-point lead.
But the Irish responded with enough three-pointers to stay close until Harangody scored on an inbounds play and found his rhythm.
At the same time, UCLA got hurt on the defensive boards, either pulled out of position while helping or unable to reach long rebounds off jumpers. It all added up to a 40-36 halftime lead for Notre Dame.
The Irish had a couple of scores to settle Saturday, starting with last season’s embarrassing 89-63 loss at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA had also won on its most recent trip to the Joyce Center, a 75-65 victory in 2005.
If there was any doubt about this rematch, it was settled with that early second-half run.
Coming out of the locker room, Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey told forward Tim Abromaitis to have some fun and Abromaitis responded with a burst of scoring.
UCLA was caught in a tough spot familiar to Notre Dame opponents, the Irish using the inside game to set up the perimeter shooters.
It all starts with Harangody, who is “very unorthodox, has a wide variety moves,” Roll said. “Spin moves, little leaners, little floaters. He got it going and it was tough to stop.”
Harangody (23 points) continued to open things up for Hansbrough and Abromaitis, who added 14 and 17, respectively.
Their effort overshadowed a career night for Lee, who amassed a game-high 29 points. Roll was almost as effective with 19 points and five assists.
As has often been the case this season, Howland was left to focus on a few positives and identify the lessons to be learned.
He talked about boxing out under the basket and being smarter about guarding the other team.
“Every time you gamble and miss,” he said, “good teams make you pay.”