After a bad start in a huge game, Lonzo Ball reminded everyone why he's one of the best college basketball players in the country.
Against Oregon, Ball was whistled for a quick foul early in the game and looked out of place against an elite opponent for maybe the first time all season. He finished the first half with zero assists and two turnovers, in what Steve Alford would later call "arguably Lonzo's toughest 20 minutes." The Ducks were more experienced and on the verge of blowing UCLA out in its own building -- part one of a crucial L.A. swing in the hunt for Pac-12 supremacy and a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament -- but then the best player on the court took over.
The turn came in the most unexpected fashion for UCLA. The Bruins have been rightly criticized throughout the season for their inability to pair a strong defensive effort with their wide-open offense, but two adjustments allowed them to crawl back into the game after trailing by as many as 19 points. The first was a zone defense, which worked adequately enough for a stretch to help slow Oregon's offensive flow.
The second defensive adjustment came when Steve Alford put Ball on Oregon star Dillon Brooks. Ball got plenty of help from his Bruins teammates, but it was one of his best defensive efforts of the season. The energy generated by that effort seemed to spark things on the other end as well, with Ball, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday hitting clutch shots to climb back into the game and even take the lead.
With the clock winding down, Ball rose to the occasion.
"That's just who Lonzo is. He figures out how to win games," Alford told reporters after the game. "That's what makes him a special point guard. He has size and athleticism but people don't talk enough about his basketball IQ. That's a feel for him and I've never told him no.
"Now I don't want five straight from 35 feet away, but if he makes the first four I might. But he just has that feel and I trust him. That trust started during the Australia trip and it's grown ever since. There was never any panic on our sideline or huddle."
Ball wound up with 15 points and 11 assists, but again was in control of the floor and game in a way that goes well beyond those numbers. By splitting the season series with Oregon, UCLA has maintained its spot in the Pac-12 title race and added a great win to its tournament resume.
"We know March is going to be tough," Ball said after the game. "Games like this get us ready for it. February sets up March, it's perfect for it."
Lonzo Ball's time in college basketball is limited, but if he continues to play at a high level against the best teams on the biggest stages we should start considering UCLA as a team ripe to make a deep run in March.