BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It might be the season for giving, but No. 10 UCLA is more invested in what it can take away from opponents at the moment. That very Grinch-ness, in fact, allowed the Bruins to secure their best résumé win of the season on Sunday, beating No. 12 Indiana 68-58.
The unbeaten Bruins (11-0) missed 48 shots in their first game this season against a ranked opponent.
They still led almost from start to finish because that paled in comparison to the frustration the Hoosiers endured, with UCLA making it so difficult for Indiana to score points at one end. All while Michaela Onyenwere made it look so easy at the other end.
The points will need to come more easily for everyone around UCLA's star as the Bruins prepare to begin play in the most competitive conference in the country this season -- the Bruins are ranked 10th in the nation but only fourth among Pac-12 teams in the AP Top 25. But Sunday offered a sense of how far UCLA's strengths can take it:
Make life difficult for the other team when you don't have the ball.
Make it even more difficult for those foes when Onyenwere has the ball.
"I didn't think we earned our ranking until this week," UCLA coach Cori Close said of a road trip that also saw the Bruins win at Georgia before Sunday's result. "To be really blunt, I just didn't think we were playing to our potential in those areas that are under our control."
A halftime contest at Assembly Hall invited those in the stands to win prizes by throwing teddy bears toward three targets set up on the court. The floor was predictably littered with stuffed toys by the end of the contest, the targets predictably unscathed. It also looked a little like a shot chart from the game, especially the first half. A lot of balls in the air. Not many finding the target.
Indiana ceded control of the game, or at least dug an almost inescapable hole, when it went more than eight minutes without a point during a period that stretched from the first quarter into the second. With 12 minutes played, the score was 18-4 in UCLA's favor.
Some of that is about Indiana missing shots and making unforced mistakes -- no defense is likely good enough entirely on its own merits to hold a ranked opponent to four points for more than a quarter. But the Bruins brought on a lot of the frustration.
Indiana entered the day with assists on 56% of its field goals this season. It isn't a team that gives the ball to a star and lets her go to work. It runs its offense, it passes, it dissects. But from denying entry passes to the high post to forcing Indiana's guards to work in isolation, UCLA left Indiana looking like a team Hoosiers coach Teri Moren indicated she barely recognized.
"Our guard play was below average," Moren said. "We just seemed out of sorts -- there was no intention in anything we were doing."
That isn't a coincidence. UCLA is familiar with that style of basketball.
"I really compared them to Oregon State, a little bit to Stanford," Close said. "Oregon State in terms of they shoot the 3 well and all those things, Stanford in the way that they run things off the pass so much. If you let them run their offense the way they want to, they're going to get good shots."
And yet for all of that, the long drought, poor rebounding and turnovers, Indiana trailed by just six points after perhaps the worst first half it will play this season. Credit some of the close score to what the Hoosiers did defensively in their own right. But where Indiana's offensive struggles were something mostly new, UCLA's wayward offensive efficiency was all too familiar.
The Bruins entered the game shooting 42% from the field and 27% from the 3-point line, paltry percentages among the kind of company they keep in the top 10. They failed to shoot even 40% from the floor in the five games immediately preceding Sunday.
Yet Onyenwere was great when she absolutely had to be, finishing with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
"We didn't have a solution [for Onyenwere]," Moren said. "I thought she hit some tough shots. I thought she had some easy shots. She actually, I felt like, took her team on her back and just made all the plays down the stretch. ...
"I thought that had a lot to do with her and her ability. We did force her to take some tough shots. She just stuck them."
Onyenwere led UCLA in scoring a season ago. But without Kennedy Burke around this season, even more offensive responsibility falls to her -- at least for now, as a much-touted freshman class continues to find its footing.
"I think people are playing me a little bit different," Onyenwere said. "My teammates just give me the ball in great places, and I'm able to do what I need to do -- whether that's my turnaround jumper or get the ball into the post. But when people do double me, I'm able to find my teammates and they make shots."
That last part is what a good teammate says, but as noted earlier, it's not entirely accurate. Sunday, Onyenwere produced 11 field goals. Her teammates produced 13.
Japreece Dean made some big shots in the win, especially as Indiana rallied in the second half. Lauryn Miller likewise scored important points in establishing the lead in the first half. But whether it was driving past post defenders nowhere near quick enough to stay with her or shooting over players on the perimeter, Onyenwere was UCLA's offense for long stretches.
Close pulled out Geno Auriemma's old line, noting she had Onyenwere and Indiana didn't.
"Last year I saw the big difference in her skill set," Close said. "This year I see a big difference in her confidence, actually in her basketball IQ. Playing with USA Basketball has been huge, both the 3-on-3 and Pan-Am Games. And she watches every game out there. She didn't do that in high school. But she loves it. She has taught herself to be a very high-IQ player."
Sunday was a reality check for all involved more than a showcase. For all its very real progress, including a win against South Carolina, Indiana is still figuring out how to play its preferred precise basketball in the physical world of the Top 25.
And after running out to a perfect start against modest schedule, UCLA is a team with serious questions to answer offensively if it's going to keep up with Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford.
But it can defend. And it has Onyenwere. Which is a good place to start.