By Jon Gold
At a certain point late in UCLA’s 89-60 win over UC Irvine on Tuesday night at the Los Anglees sports Arena, it almost looked like Ben Howland cracked a smile.
There hasn’t been all too much to grin about this year for the truculent head coach.
Moving above .500 for the first time this year?
Enough to make Howland laugh.
“I was just glad we were playing well there,” Howland said. “Our guys are really coming together. You can see there’s a good chemistry with this team right now. That’s fun. It was good to see them get excited for their teammates making good plays.”
The players? Now they had a rollicking good time. Much like in their 82-39 win over UC Davis on Saturday at the Honda Center, the Bruins benefitted from impressive ball movement, finding wide open running lanes while finishing with 22 assists on their 34 baskets.
Towels waved on the bench, 3-pointers fell in like raindrops and if there were any more high fives, there might’ve been a dozen sprained wrists.
UCLA has now won four straight since Howland dismissed Reeves Nelson, and Howland did not avoid the awkward question.
“That’s the reason when I removed Reeves,” Howland said. “It has improved our chemistry and being positive. That’s the bottom line.”
Freshman guard Norman Powell brought the energy to a fever pitch with two second-half spurts. Less than three minutes after a rebound-3-pointer-rebound-drawn foul sequence, Powell had a 3-pointer, then followed that with a steal, sprinted down the court for a dunk-and-one and hit the free throw, six of his career-high 19 points.
Powell also added seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals with zero turnovers in just his 11th career game.
“My game tonight was basically being aggressive on defense,” Powell said. “Your defense brings offense. With me trying to get the steals, blocks, playing hard, defending my man led to easy points in transition.”
Powell was the most prolific of a bountiful backcourt performance, as guards Tyler Lamb, Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones combined for 35 points on 14-of-27 shooting.
With the Anteaters sealing off sophomore center Joshua Smith in the paint and denying the ball in the interior, the guards came to the rescue.
“We played well as a team tonight,” Lamb said. “UC Irvine focused so much on our front court that we were able to get open shots. The way we were playing tonight, we were getting stops on defense and we were able to run and get buckets in transition.”
The Anteaters strategy worked early as they managed to keep the game tied at 10 with 12 minutes left in the first half. Smith had just two free throws to that point, but the Bruins kept working it inside-out and went on a 32-18 run to close the half.
“We got off to a little of a slow start, but our defense started to improve and we started executing offensively,” Howland said. “I was really proud of the rebounding, and in the second half, we did a better job of field goal defense.”
With a win on Friday over Richmond at the Sports Arena, the Bruins would move to 7-5 heading into Pac-12 play, seemingly unthinkable after they fell to 2-5.
“We’re much improved,” Howland said. “It’s just a better cohesive unit. Guys are really good on and off the floor together, and that’s big for us.”