Another March has once again suddenly sprung upon us, and with that comes conference tournament time, one last chance for teams to make a statement before Selection Sunday arrives and the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced.
UCLA is continuing to show why it’s the best team out of the West right now after grinding out another impressive victory on the road and wrapping up its second straight Pac-10 title with a 53-45 victory over No. 13 Washington State March 1 in Pullman.
Junior Aaron Afflalo tallied a team-high 14 points for UCLA (26-3 overall, 15-2 Pac-10), who had already clinched a tie for the conference crown on Feb. 24 with a 75-61 win over Stanford.
The Bruins earned some revenge on the Cardinal after Stanford handed them a 75-68 loss on Jan. 28 in a game in which UCLA squandered a 17-point lead in the second half.
“That was a game we shouldn’t have dropped in the first place,” UCLA center Lorenzo Mata said. “But we found some other ways to get it done [the second time].”
UCLA coach Ben Howland was pleased with the win over Stanford, commending the Cardinal, who has been without sophomore guard Anthony Goods since he suffered a high ankle sprain against Washington on Feb. 11.
“If you’re in the NCAA Tournament, you don’t want to be playing Stanford,” he said. “They’re a very good team.”
Freshman forward Brook Lopez proved that the future looks bright in Palo Alto, leading all scorers with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds in 35 minutes. Lawrence Hill remained the other double-digit scorer for the Cardinal with 13 points, hitting 2-of-4 shots from beyond the arc.
The Bruins lost only once in the month of February, a 70-65 defeat at West Virginia with starting point guard Darren Collison sidelined along with improving center Lorenzo Mata, who has started to assert himself in the low post over the last four games.
Collison’s defense on Cardinal point guard Mitch Johnson was a key in UCLA’s victory over Stanford at Pauley Pavilion, as the sophomore floor leader led the Bruins with six assists against just one turnover to go along with five steals.
“You don’t want Darren Collison pressuring you all day long,” Howland said. “That’s not a fun thing. Most of the point guards in this league have experienced that.
“He’s great defending on the ball. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever coached.”
Josh Shipp has remained consistent for the Bruins, and against the second-place Cougars, the sophomore contributed 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the floor.
“My confidence is always high,” Shipp asserted after registering eight points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal against Stanford. “I’m a shooter. I can shoot the ball so I’m not worried.”
UCLA did lose at Washington on March 3, and while the Huskies have only suffered defeat once at home, the loss should not hurt the Bruins’ chances of getting a No. 1 seed in the San Jose regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Notes: Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik was issued a public reprimand for his negative remarks on Feb. 25 concerning the Mountain West Conference schedule, violating the conference’s ruling on public criticism…The Mountain West was one of five conferences in the nation with at least three teams (UNLV, Air Force and BYU) listed in the Top 25 of the latest CollegeRPI.com report last week. Four teams in the conference, including Air Force, BYU, UNLV and San Diego, have already topped the 20-win mark for the third time in the league’s eight-year history…UNLV’s Kevin Krugger earned his first honor as Mountain West Conference Player of the Week after leading the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring and assists in the last week of conference action. In his team’s 85-83 win over New Mexico, Kruger notched a career high with 29 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor, including 7-of-9 from three while also tallying a game-high nine assists, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 35 minutes. The senior point guard preserved UNLV’s victory over the Cowboys with a block on a 3-point attempt with less than one second to play. Kruger followed up that performance with a game-high 16 points and nine assists to guide UNLV to its 14th straight home win and first undefeated home conference season in 14 years with a 65-47 victory over Colorado State. He sank four 3-pointers against the Rams in addition to two rebounds…San Diego State’s Brandon Heath and Colorado State’s Jason Smith were the only two players in the Mountain West Conference to win the weekly award on three separate occasions this season. Heath won his third award back on Feb. 26 with Smith. The 6-foot-4 guard from Los Angeles, Calif. recorded back-to-back 30 point games for the first time in his career with wins against New Mexico and then-No. 21 BYU while Smith recorded back-to-back double-doubles in meetings with the Cougars and Wyoming. In the Rams’ home win over the Cowboys, the 7-foot center from Kersey, Colo. registered a 27 points and 22 rebounds, marking the third highest total in NCAA Division I this season. It was the most rebounds in a conference game since its inception and the most for a Colorado State player since 1971.