By Jon Gold
After coming out asleep in the first half of its four-point overtime loss to Cal last Sunday, the UCLA men’/s basketball team vowed to set the tone early against Arizona State on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.
Only the guitar was missing two strings, the strings that were left were made out of glass, and the whole thing was painfully out of tune.
The Bruins shot 1-for-10 to start the game as the Sun Devils got easy bucket after easy bucket, making 7-of-8 shots to take an 11-point lead.
But it was nothing to fret over, as the Bruins atoned for a brutal first 10 minutes with a brilliant run, closing the first half with a 30-8 run before going on to the 71-53 win, their 11th in 13 games.
“This doesn’t feel like an 18-point win,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “I’m really happy we won by 18, but it just didn’t feel like it.”
For 10 minutes, UCLA wasn’t just out of sorts, it was bankrupt.
There might as well have been a brick wall in front of the UCLA rim, built by the Bruins themselves. The Bruins missed more gimmes than a down-on-his-luck golfer. UCLA started 6-of-20 shooting, easy layups looking like half-court heaves.
First the Bruins got frustrated, then they got irritated, then they got downright pissed.
When freshman center Joshua Smith threw down a haymaker dunk as the first-half was about to expire – receiving an emphatic chest-bump from teammate Reeves Nelson as the team walked off the court – the Bruins had made seven-of-eight and capitalized on Sun Devil turnover after Sun Devil turnover.
“Whenever Josh dunks – especially when he’s body to body with a guy – it’s going to get us all hyped up,” Nelson said. “I was glad he fought for position and executed the play. It was good to score into halftime. It gave us a good vibe going into the locker room.”
The Bruins kept the momentum rolling, stretching the lead to as much as 20 midway through the second half against the smaller Sun Devils (10-17, 2-13).
The biggest culprits? Sound passing and even better defense.
UCLA (20-8, 11-4) clamped down on Arizona State, forcing the Sun Devils to the perimeter and outside of the paint, making just nine-of-22 shots in the second half. The Bruins benefitted from Arizona State’s stagnant offense, forcing 16 turnovers and racking up 11 fast-break points and a season-high 22 assists, including 10 by junior point guard Lazeric Jones, with zero turnovers, to go along with 10 points.
Jones was one of five Bruins in double-figures, as junior guard Malcolm Lee led the Bruins with 16 while Honeycutt added 13 points and three 3-pointers, and Smith and Nelson each scored 12. No Sun Devil hit the 10-point mark, with Chanse Creekmur leading the team with nine
“We did a good job to start the first five minutes of the second half,” Howland said. “They cut it to nine, but we fought back and took a nice lead. We were up 20 and had a couple turnovers that led to some baskets. I called a timeout up 15, my fourth of the game. That was a tough game. Tough for me, anyway.”
It doesn’t get any easier on Saturday.
In fact, it might just be the biggest game of the season for the Bruins.
Big, bad Arizona comes into Pauley Pavilion – the last game at the venerated arena for a year, as it will be renovated next season – on Saturday morning, and UCLA expects the Wildcats to be fuming after they lost to USC on Thursday night.
With a UCLA win, the Bruins and Wildcats will be tied for first in the Pac-10 at 12-4.
“Coach always says that the next game is the most important, and this is definitely the case,” Nelson said. “Arizona is a great team and we have a chance to be tied for first, last game in the old Pauley, so I think everyone knows how important it is.”