Howland Coaxes His Team to Victory

When Ben Howland opened the door to UCLA’s locker room at the McKale Center, a huge cheer went up.

The young Bruins, led by barely seasoned sophomores and freshmen from Africa, Canada and Rancho Cucamonga, committed 23 turnovers but shot 61% from the field against Arizona.

Arron Afflalo made what he called the worst pass of his career in the final minutes, a turnover that turned into a three-point play for the Wildcats, a turn of momentum that could have been disastrous. However, Afflalo also made a gorgeous bank shot high off the backboard when it also mattered hugely.


So Howland praised Afflalo as a warrior and accepted the mistake.

UCLA beat Arizona for the first time since 1997 here, 85-79. And Howland deserved the raucous welcome he received after the game.

That is because Howland has become the great coaxer.

He starts Lorenzo Mata and stays with the sophomore at center until Mata has committed a couple of silly fouls and missed a couple of defensive assignments.

So in comes freshman Alfred Aboya. Howland has been coaxing Aboya through two knee surgeries and his slow recuperation. A minute here, two minutes there. A turnover but also a big rebound. Two missed foul shots but a confident jumper, and Howland is rewarded for his patience.

Freshman point guard Darren Collison weaves around the perimeter, negotiating defenders as if they were part of a cone drill and nailing a perfect pass to another freshman, Ryan Wright.

But then Collison will dribble fruitlessly until the shot clock is almost gone. Or he makes a difficult pass to Mata who is moving across the key. Mata is not the right person to catch that pass, not when the score is 66-63 in UCLA’s favor with 6:23 left.

But Howland coaxes. He gives the rookie praise and puts the ball back in his hands.

Howland is still figuring out how to coax the right amount of minutes from his star point guard Jordan Farmar.

Farmar sprained his ankle two weeks into the season and it is not going to heal all the way. Farmar started Thursday and played until he took a funny slide and yelped. Out he went, limping to the bench, punching his hand angrily, hobbling off the court. But Farmar came back quickly, had the ankle re-taped.

“That’s the way it’s going to be,” Howland said. “We’ve got to manage his time.”

And as soon as Farmar nodded, Howland had him back in the game. It was just in time to replace Afflalo, who had picked up a third foul late in the first half. Farmar made a blind over-the-shoulder pass that led to a Wright layup and ended the half with a three-point play for UCLA. Perfect timing.

While Howland is still saddled with two Steve Lavin recruits -- Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey -- he will need to coax Mata, Aboya, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Wright into taking those small steps of improvement. Hollins wore street clothes Thursday, and Fey didn’t make the trip. The two 7-foot seniors have been barely useful this season. They have minor injuries and good natures that don’t translate into basketball ferocity.

So Howland applauds fiercely when Mata shoots a confident 12-foot jump shot and cheers him when he misses a 15-foot one later. Soon after that, Mata sets a serious screen that frees Afflalo to drive the lane and loft that bank shot that gives UCLA a 75-68 lead with about three minutes left.

It is too early to speak in an overdramatic way about the value of a single victory, but this was an important win for the 12-2 Bruins.

Arizona, the class of the Pac-10 for a decade, carried a seven-game winning streak into the noisy arena and a cocky confidence after the Wildcats swept Washington State and Washington on the road to open the season. With UCLA losing at home to California, it took only one weekend for Arizona to have a big edge in the conference race.

Senior Hassan Adams was coming off a brilliant game to help the Wildcats upset Washington in double overtime, but even with his 21 points Thursday, Adams appeared pedestrian and unable to impose his will.

By contrast, Mata had nine points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot in what Howland called his “best performance as a Bruin.”

“I’m going by feel and fouls,” was how Howland described his coaxing job.

Josh Shipp, who is only in his third game back after a serious hip injury, had 14 points, six rebounds and a softly spoken speech about his coach.

“He’s doing all the things right,” Shipp said. “He just seems to know how to handle the freshmen. He admits when things are wrong and changes them. It’s perfect for us.”

The coaxer should be proud.