UCLA 68, Stanford 60: ‘Bazz rises to challenge

The Bruins slugged their way to another low-scoring game in the Pac-12’s opening weekend, combining with Stanford to shoot just 31.4 percent in the first half.

Even when it should have coasted to victory with a double-digit lead, UCLA left the door open with four straight missed free throws. It took a boneheaded decision by Stanford to call a non-existent timeout to truly seal the win.

“Any win is beautiful,” Ben Howland said afterward.

Except that isn’t the case anymore. The embarrassing Cal Poly loss in November involved a team that looks nothing like the one that now calls Pauley Pavilion home. This current incarnation of UCLA basketball has improved to the point where just getting a win isn’t enough. Young talent is gelling and, when the transition game works in peak form, the Bruins look like a team that could knock off a couple of teams in March.

UCLA still needs to prove it can win on the road, and next weekend’s visit to Colorado will provide a stern test. It also has benefited from opponents’ unsightly mistakes, including missed layups by Texas, Missouri and Cal. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins was so frustrated with his team after the loss at Pauley that he kept them in the locker room for 56 minutes — what he called a personal record. Dawkins was particularly frustrated with the Cardinal missing point-blank shots. Forward Josh Huestis, for example, missed a dunk on his team’s second possession of the day.

Those won’t keep coming, but UCLA will likely continue getting better — its defense having already made surprisingly large strides. In the building process, Shabazz Muhammad’s effort again stood out Saturday afternoon.

“Normally, Shabazz has the tendency to leak out of there and not help his team rebound on defense like he is capable,” Howland said. That changed when the freshman was matched up against Huestis, one of the conference’s best offensive rebounders. Howland told Muhammad before the game that if he didn’t block out well, the Bruins would lose.

The star freshman took that to heart and tied his season-best 10 rebounds — the latest example of the sheer will that helped make him the nation’s top recruit. He also 17 of his 23 points in the second half, including seven straight shortly after the break.

“I try to answer,” Muhammad said. “I’m just a competitive guy in anything.”

Stanford still managed 22 second chance points off 15 offensive rebounds. Kyle Anderson grabbed 12 rebounds, but forwards Travis and David Wear combined for just five.

Other notes
— Jordan Adams nabbed a career-high seven steals, but missed three straight one-and-ones at the line. He still makes a team-leading 83.3 percent of his free throws, and also hasn’t missed any in crucial situations.

“That’s just an odd occurrence in my mind,” Howland said.

— Tony Parker was late to the pregame layup line and played two nondescript minutes. He nearly airballed a free throw, perhaps a sign that his back spasms are still bothering him. Howland said Parker felt “OK” but still needs to get comfortable. He also missed a practice this week with a migraine.

— Stanford’s Dwight Powell broke out of a three-game slump, abusing the Wears for 17 points and 13 rebounds in his third career double-double. Travis and David did score UCLA’s first 15 points, which balances some of that out, but the team’s inability to defend skilled big men is still glaring.

— In their last 82:43 of game time, the Bruins have held opponents to 7 of 36 on 3-pointers.