There was something missing from the UCLA basketball team over the past week or so. Something big.
And that would be center Tony Parker.
A virtual no-show in two recent losses, Parker returned from the land of the lost on Wednesday night, helping the Bruins to an 88-66 win over Washington at Pauley Pavilion.
“I knew I had to come out aggressive and play hard,” he said. “It was big for me, for my confidence.”
The junior's 20 points — and 24 from guard Norman Powell — provided a crucial boost for a team that faces a do-or-die situation in trying to make the NCAA tournament.
“There's a lot of motivation,” Powell said.
But the Bruins dropped both games in the desert and came home knowing their March Madness fortunes hinge on running the table through the final three games of the regular season, then making some noise in the Pac-12 tournament.
The good news? The schedule had them finishing at home against teams in the bottom of the conference standings.
The bad news? They needed to address weaknesses that were all too apparent against Arizona and Arizona State.
Parker ranked at the top of that fix-it list. Though UCLA looks to Powell for its offensive fireworks, the players say they cannot win consistently without their big man in the mix.
After struggling with fouls and scoring just four points in those two losses, Parker apologized to teammates.
“He tried to put all the blame on himself,” Powell said.
On Wednesday, Parker took it out on a depleted Washington frontcourt, forcing his way inside for two quick baskets. Next came a pair of jump hooks and UCLA was off to a 10-point lead.
The Huskies (15-12, 4-11) had arrived in Westwood with a shred of momentum after defeating cross-state rival Washington State to snap a seven-game losing streak.
But the Huskies have had problems at center too. Robert Upshaw's dismissal from the team for an unspecified rules violation in late January triggered that long dry spell.
Now too much of the onus has been shifted to the backcourt. Though guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews led their team with 17 and 18 points, respectively, it wasn't enough.
The Bruins put the 3-2 zone to good use and rebounded well, building a 46-25 halftime lead.
“A really good game for us,” Coach Steve Alford said. “They were undersized and we took advantage of that.”
Not that everything went right for UCLA. The Huskies found enough room at the offensive end to score 36 points from three-point range. Parker spent a sizable portion of the first half on the bench with two fouls.
But no one got into serious foul trouble — a big change from the Arizona loss — and Isaac Hamilton scored 16 points as UCLA kept the pressure on in the second half.
It was another issue the team had discussed this week.
“Just learning how to keep your foot on the pedal when you've got a good lead,” Powell said. “Not relax and slow down.”
Even on the sideline, Alford seemed to move well after hernia surgery earlier in the week. He liked what he saw, especially from Parker.
“Tony's got to have that energy and that go-to mentality,” he said. “Those are things we've got to have.”
Follow David Wharton on Twitter @LATimesWharton