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UCLA avoids stunner against UC Riverside with second-half rally

UCLA rallies in second half for fourth consecutive win with 77-66 victory over UC Riverside

It all felt familiar.

The first half Wednesday was sluggish and careless. The UCLA basketball team trailed by eight points to an underdog — and not just any underdog. This was UC Riverside, the team picked to finish last in the Big West in the conference's preseason media poll.

And, for the second halftime in a row, UCLA Coach Steve Alford said he “wasn't pleased. Again.”

And again, UCLA avoided disaster with an efficient second half in a 77-66 win over UC Riverside at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA (8-2) has avoided drama in the early-season slate. The Bruins have won each game in which they were favored. They've lost both games as an underdog. Only one game was decided by fewer than 10 points.

Now there are no easy games left. The final three nonconference games will be against No. 9 Gonzaga, No. 1 Kentucky at a neutral site and at Alabama.

Maybe the Bruins were already looking ahead. If so, that's a problem, Alford said.

“You don't get up for a Riverside one way and a Gonzaga another way,” Alford said.

“Just respect every team. We did this a lot last year,” Tony Parker said. “With this team it kind of hurt us because our bench is not as strong.”

From the start, the Highlanders played with more energy. After each three-pointer or hustle play, the bench's yells could be heard throughout the quiet arena, which was again less than half full.

UC Riverside (5-4) buried seven of 17 three-pointers in the half, many of them open looks. UCLA made one of seven and committed eight turnovers in the period.

Once again, Alford used the halftime to question the team's toughness.

And once again, the team responded. Norman Powell took over. He opened the half scoring seven of the Bruins' first nine points. He finished with 20 points on eight-for-11 shooting.

Parker set a career high in rebounds, with 16, in addition to 16 points.

The Bruins shot 62.5% in the second half, making five of nine three-pointers.

Alford said he knows his team is not yet a finished product. Turnovers and consistency have been issues at times. The bench is thin.

But, he said, if the team can be tough, it can overcome those issues.

Yet for the second game in a row, he needed a halftime speech to find it. Against better competition, he won't have that chance.

“We've got to be more ready than we were tonight,” Bryce Alford said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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