From Vinny Bonsignore…
At the end of a long, dreary Monday came a glimmer of hope for UCLA.
The Bruins basketball team showed definite signs of waking up from its early season slumber in a 62-39 win over Pepperdine at the Sports Arena.
Lost in all the drama unfolding across the hall with the UCLA football team, which culminated Monday with the firing of underachieving head coach Rick Neuheisel, is the underwhelming start by the Bruins on the hardwood.
The back-to-back losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State mixed in with some off-court turmoil by temperamental forward Reeves Nelson and a pair of blowout setbacks in Hawaii to Kansas and Michigan created a worst-case scenario for a team looking to rebound from two relatively down seasons.
Then came Monday and the definite step in the right direction the Bruins took against Pepperdine, by far their most convincing, complete performance of the season.
For the first time all year UCLA (2-4) successfully defended the perimeter, especially through a first half in which Pepperdine managed to make just 5 of 19 shots from the field while shooting a dismal 26.3 percent from the field.
Best of all was the 0-for-3 the Waves (3-3) shot from 3-point range, as the Bruins have had particular trouble slowing teams down from behind the ark.
Pepperdine finished the night making 15 of 48 shots and 3 of 9 three-pointers, with Taylor Darby scoring nine to lead the way.
“Our need for a win tonight was exemplified by how hard we played defensively,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “Our team defense was by far our best effort of the year. That’s how we have to play.”
The crisp defense, coupled with better rebounding work enabled the Bruins to get out and run, resulting in some easy transition points.
“Seeing guys get on the floor and communicate, that’s how we have to play,” said Lazeric Jones, who had six steals. “It was better effort, better communication, everything.”
It all culminated with a 20-2 run midway through the first half in which the Bruins built a lead of 17 points.
“Going forward, this is how we have to play,” David Wear said. “I think we showed defensively and offensively what kind of team we can be.”
The second half was much the same, with UCLA opening a 50-29 lead after a 3-point play from David Wear then extending it to 54-31 on a basket by Nelson, who once again came off the bench.
In addition, Norman Powell and Jones got untracked in the back court, both sinking three-pointers in the second half and both finishing the game in double digits – Jones with 14 and Powell with 10.
“Norm came off the bench and played well for us,” Howland said.
David Wear added 10 points and his brother Travis finished with eight. Travis Wear, incidentally, got two teeth knocked out after getting elbowed in the second half. He wasn’t wearing his normal mouth piece when it happened.
“I just ran into his elbow,” Wear said. “It was inadvertent.”
The good news is, he didn’t lose them in vain.
“He’ll always remember he got them knocked out in a win,” Howland
All in all, it was a much-needed confidence boast for a team struggling to find an identity, rhythm and efficient level of consistency.
“Definitely something to build on,” Travis Wear said.
Granted, Pepperdine won’t be confused with Kansas anytime soon but the Waves do have a win over Arizona State to their credit – albeit a loss to Cal State Bakersfield as well.
But with the Bruins already losing to LMU and Middle Tennessee State – and considering their only win on the season came against tiny Chaminade in Hawaii – well you’ll just have to excuse them for feeling pretty good about themselves after taking care of Pepperdine.
Peel back the layers of dominance and some interesting tidbits are uncovered.
First, 10 different Bruins finished in the scoring column, proof of how well the ball was moving offensively and the ease with which they were running the floor and converting.
Just as impactful was the work being done on the glass, with Travis Wear pulling down 10 rebounds, and although Pepperdine ended up beating UCLA on the boards, 36-35, the Waves did so with a big second half push and with the game in hand.
Most important of all was the defensive pressure being applied to the Waves, with UCLA fighting through screens to chase down shooters and siphoning off the insider.
The Bruins forced 15 turnovers and came up with 15 steals.
All in all, it was everything UCLA could have hoped for after playing as poorly as it did over its first five games.
And for a school reeling from the firing of its football coach, a definite ray of sunshine.