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UCLA looks for more stops; USC hopes win is start of something good

Defense and effort have keyed recent turnaround in which UCLA has won five of six games

In anticipation of a regular-season-ending stretch that sophomore guard Bryce Alford compared to playoff games, UCLA's basketball team has been preparing by watching . . . playoff games.

NBA playoff games.

Coach Steve Alford said the clips are helping emphasize effort on defense.

"We felt like contesting shots was just something we didn't do very well," Steve Alford said. "We'd stop on plays. A lot of young guys do that."

After consecutive losses to Oregon State and Oregon three weeks ago, UCLA has been operating with a slim margin for error. A few more losses and the Bruins could have been out of NCAA tournament contention.

The coaches had been urging the players to contest shots with more energy. The team was shown videos of its losses. Unflattering statistics were quoted. But nothing worked.

Getting swept in Oregon finally did the trick, senior guard Norman Powell said.

"Honestly," Powell said, "it's our effort."

Since then, UCLA has won five of six games and only two opponents — Utah and Stanford, both UCLA wins — have shot better than 40%. Opponents have made about 4.5% fewer shots than in the first half of the Pac-12 Conference season.

Defensively, UCLA is ninth in the conference, giving up 68.2 points per game, but the Bruins have given up an average of five fewer points per game in the last six games.

The Bruins' final regular-season trip, which starts with a game against Arizona State on Wednesday and concludes at No. 7 Arizona on Saturday, is also their most important. Arizona is the second-highest-scoring team in the conference and is tied for the best in field-goal percentage.

"We get March Madness now," Powell said.

Point taken

USC has won two Pac-12 games — both without Jordan McLaughlin, who is arguably the Trojans' best player.

The freshman point guard averages 12.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, but he reinjured his surgically repaired left shoulder against Oregon last Wednesday. USC won its next game, against Oregon State, on Saturday.

McLaughlin is traveling with the team to play Arizona on Thursday, but USC Coach Andy Enfield said he is unlikely to play.

McLaughlin missed time earlier in the conference season when he injured his right shoulder. USC beat California without him in the lineup.

The Trojans have persevered thanks partly to Julian Jacobs, a sophomore guard who has 32 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in the last two games. With more playing time in McLaughlin's absence, freshman Elijah Stewart also thrived against Oregon State. He had 19 points, five rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals.

UCLA AT ARIZONA STATE

When: 6.

Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Ariz.

On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.

Records: UCLA 16-10, 8-5 in Pac-12; Arizona State 13-12, 5-7.

Update: The Bruins have won only two Pac-12 Conference games on the road and have their most important road series this week. As a bubble team for the NCAA tournament, they cannot afford to lose many more games. UCLA has won five of its last six games, and senior guard Norman Powell has scored 20 points or more in five of his last seven games. The Sun Devils are 3-2 at home, including a three-point victory over Arizona on Feb. 7.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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