UCLA guard Bryce Alford high-fives the crowd after nailing a three-point basket against USC during the Bruins’ 102-70 win at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 18. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
If recent trends persist, the team that doesn’t like to talk can look back on the time it chattered like teenagers carrying on about the latest photo-sharing app as the moment that changed the trajectory of its season.
UCLA had just been throttled by USC on Jan. 25 when the Bruins lingered in their locker room inside the Galen Center. After Coach Steve Alford’s short postgame spiel, his son Bryce, the team’s shooting guard, made sure none of the players left and that the coaches weren’t in the room before leading an air-it-out session that lasted about 20 minutes.
Players talked about staying confident and having fun again after their first back-to-back losses of the season. More than anything, they talked about defense, the missing component on a team that could move the ball and score like a collegiate version of the Golden State Warriors.
“If we want to make a run in the [NCAA] tournament, that’s what our staple has to be,” Bryce Alford said late Saturday night after leading the No. 6 Bruins to a 102-70 victory over USC at Pauley Pavilion with 26 points and six assists. “We’ve got to get better on defense. I think every game from the last SC game, we’ve gotten better on defense and the stats won’t lie to you. Outside of about 20 minutes against Oregon, we’ve been playing really good defense.”
UCLA has gone 5-0 in February, handling its recent stretch like the opponents were non-conference pushovers instead of Pac-12 rivals. The Bruins (24-3 overall, 11-3 in the Pac-12) have won their last five games by an average of 22 points and handed USC its most lopsided defeat of the season.
They’ve done it by defending better for a sustained stretch than they have all season, while maintaining their ability to score with ease.
“We’ve had five games in a row,” Steve Alford said, “where our offensive efficiency has stayed at a high level and our defensive efficiency has gotten a lot better.”
The Bruins have exerted more ball pressure, though their success has transcended the traps and in-your-face presence of all five players on the court.
“Guys’ attitudes, I can start with that,” UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball said. “Everybody wants to get down and guard now. We know we can score with anybody in the country. Once we guard, we’re a hard team to beat.”
Steve Alford credited Ball as the defensive trendsetter, with his ability to generate steals and deflections carrying over to his teammates. Ball held USC counterpart Jordan McLaughlin, the Trojans’ primary playmaker, to five assists and nine points on three-for-10 shooting.
Ball also made what might have qualified as the defensive play of the game when he came over to swat a shot by Bennie Boatwright after the USC forward had pump-faked UCLA counterpart TJ Leaf out of the way.
“Lonzo’s stepped it up big-time on both ends but especially defensively as of recent and it’s definitely contagious, just like his unselfishness is contagious,” Leaf said. “On the defensive end, when he’s getting into people, it just builds for everyone else and everyone wants to get down in a stance, talk and just get these stops.”
The talking part remains an ongoing issue outside of the locker room. Steve Alford said he’s harped on the defensive principles of staying in a stance and conversing with teammates since the team traveled to Australia for an exhibition tour in August.
“The stance is making progress, the talking still has a lot of growth yet because we’ve got some guys that just have a quiet demeanor,” Alford said. “But the more we can talk and communicate, the better we are.”
On the plus side, the Bruins’ recent play has said plenty.