With team leader Malcolm Lee sidelined by a sprained ankle, the weight of the world – or at least the UCLA basketball team – was piled upon the sturdy shoulders of Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt.
They did not disappoint.
Nelson had 21 points and 14 rebounds, Honeycutt added 15 points and 15 boards, and UCLA put the clamps on the University of the Pacific in a 57-44 win in the second game of the NIT Season Tip-Off West Regional. UCLA will head to Madison Square Garden now for the semifinals, where No. 7 Villanova awaits.
The Bruins frustrated the Tigers into poor shot after poor shot, holding Pacific to 25-percent shooting, including 13 percent from 3-point range.
“I was really excited by our defense,” said Howland after UCLA allowed just one Tiger in double-figures. “We held them to 25 percent; what else can you say? This is a team that executes better than anyone you’ll see. Bob Thomason is not a good coach but a great coach.”
With just eight scholarship players in the lineup, Howland needed to do some creative coaching himself.
Honeycutt and Nelson took care of the rest.
Nelson had 17 first-half points and Honeycutt had 13, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to go into halftime.
Perhaps more importantly, the sophomore duo dominated the glass.
With freshman center Joshua Smith in early foul trouble – he played just five first-half minutes and 13 total, finishing with four fouls for the third straight game – Honeycutt and Nelson traded boards back and forth.
The two finished with 29 of the Bruins’ 38 rebounds.
“I’m expecting a double-double from Reeves and Honeycutt,” Howland said. “Those guys are capable of averaging a double-double for the year. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve talked to both of them about that – double-doubles on a consistent basis.”
In the second half, UCLA was anything but consistent.
Slowed down by the Pacific zone defense and fatigued because of the foul trouble and the small roster numbers – freshman guard Matt Carlino also missed the game as he recovers from a concussion – the Bruins were outscored 20-17.
Honeycutt and Nelson both admitted to being exhausted after the game, and Howland said the players will have two straight days off for the first time since the preseason started.
“With all the combinations – Josh in foul trouble, us already being thin on the front, back-to-back nights – it all got to me,” Nelson said. “But that’s no excuse for how I played (in the second half).”
When Nelson and Honeycutt dipped, junior point guard Lazeric Jones came to the rescue.
Jones had two crucial dribble-drive layups late in the game and played terrific perimeter defense as Pacific starting guards Demetrece Young,Terrell Smith and Allen Huddleston combined for just 15 points on 24 shot attempts.
“It’s a big responsibility, but I’m up for the challenge,” Jones said. “That’s why I came in the first place. The shots were in the flow of the game. I knew they were going to get up on these guys a little more. I have to make them pay when they forget about me.”
UCLA, which struggled early in Monday’s win over Pepperdine because of what Nelson called “the bright lights,” will need to contain their excitement next Wednesday when they head to Manhattan.
“I’ve always wanted to go to New York,” Honeycutt said. “You always see movies, TV shows and you see the Big Apple. I’ve been to Buffalo, but that’s not considered New York.
“I kept telling us during the huddle, ‘I’m, trying to go out to New York, I don’t know bout you guys.'”