Overview: This game was more about mentality than final score. Kansas won 72-56, but you had a feeling Kansas was always going to win.
What was interesting was how the two teams played. UCLA looked like it preferred the Maui beaches to the Lahaina court early, allowing the Jayhawks to walk over it in the first half. Yet the Bruins rallied in the second.
Meanwhile, KU looked like it was coasting in the first before falling apart midway through the second. Then, just when it got scary, the Jayhawks found their mojo again. That Kansas got the victory in this Maui Invitational semifinal will serve a young Jayhawks team well going forward. What the rally and the finding of a pulse means for the Bruins remains to be seen.
Turning point: Technically it was the opening tip, from which Kansas jumped to a 14-2 lead and stormed to a 17-point advantage by the break. UCLA’s second-half comeback, though, put the pressure on the Jayhawks, and it was Elijah Johnson who eased it. The junior’s jumper at the top of the key turned a near-debacle into a breathable seven-point lead for Kansas with just less than five minutes to go. That bucket stoked a 15-4 KU run to end the game.
Why Kansas won: Much of the postgame talk will be about how UCLA summoned some sort of life in the second half, but KU's ability to stave off the rally was equally impressive. This is a Jayhawks team still in progress, and when the Bruins made it scary, Kansas didn’t panic. KU remained composed, relying on the hot hand of Johnson to win it. Mix in a defensive first half that made it nearly impossible for UCLA to score, and you’ve got a recipe for a victory.
Why UCLA lost: Numbers don’t lie. The Bruins managed just six made field goals yet committed 11 turnovers in the first half, an offensive inefficiency leading to a 43-26 deficit that was impossible to overcome. You had to appreciate the pluck and energy on both ends of the floor for UCLA that forced a 21-6 run to make it a five-point game with 8:02 to play, but the Bruins simply aren’t good enough to crawl back from such a huge hole. Not many teams are.
Star of the game: Johnson. The junior was good in the first half and good in the second, a book-ended reliable night that Kansas needed. He scored 23 points, his wise shot selection evidenced in his 8-of-13 shooting from the floor and 4-of-8 from the arc.
What it means: Valuable lesson here for Kansas. The Jayhawks played a terrific first half, stepping on the gas pedal to cruise to that huge lead. But when the Jayhawks eased off, UCLA made things slightly dicey. Not so dicey as to threaten a complete meltdown, but dicey enough that KU ought to take ye olde 40-minute adage to heart after this game.
Maybe this game, albeit a loss, serves as the much-needed alarm clock for UCLA. After looking entirely disinterested in the first half, the Bruins rebounded to make things interesting in the second. UCLA right now is more about attitude than talent, and if the Bruins can get on the same page, they can salvage this season.
More observations: Reeves Nelson needs to buy into UCLA if the Bruins are going to regroup. Ben Howland doesn’t need the headaches but he needs the player. Nelson, who came off the bench again after missing the team’s flight to Hawaii, scored 12 points and added five rebounds, but it was the little things he brought to the Bruins -- stepping in and taking charges and igniting a team and a bench that previously looked like they were sleepwalking. ... Kansas forward Thomas Robinson continues to play like a future pro. He scored 15, showing off some strong post moves and adding 10 critical rebounds. ... UCLA's Tyler Lamb, a 20 percent 3-point shooter last season, drained three of four from the arc. If he can continue to do that, the Bruins might find at least part of the solution to their offensive woes.
What’s next: Kansas advances for a name-brand, blue-blood Maui Invitational final against Duke. The Jayhawks haven’t won this title since 1996, while Duke has never lost in a Maui championship game. The Blue Devils are 4-for-4.
As for UCLA, the next game isn’t what matters. It’s who the Bruins want to be -- are they the team that looked disinterested and flat in the first half or the one that showed a breath of life in the second? While it might sound cataclysmic to say this team is at a crossroads before the end of November, it’s the hard truth. The players and Howland all need to look hard in the mirror and decide how they want this season to go.