Bruins enjoy a gut reaction
It seems that reports of UCLA’s demise had been greatly exaggerated.
Two straight losses and a tumble down the rankings had generated serious doubts about a team trying to win its fourth consecutive Pacific 10 Conference title and make another run deep into the NCAA tournament.
But on Thursday night, the Bruins showed that no one should count them out of the race.
At least not yet.
With a blend of up-tempo offense and scrambling defense, 20th-ranked UCLA outlasted conference leader and 22nd-ranked Washington, 85-76, before a crowd of 11,145 at Pauley Pavilion.
“This was a gut-check week for us,” Coach Ben Howland said. “And we responded to the first half of that gut check.”
With the victory, UCLA (20-6, 9-4) moved back into a tie for second place in the conference, a half-game behind Washington. The Bruins play Washington State on Saturday.
“We needed this big win,” swingman Josh Shipp said. “For us, it was definitely a momentum booster and a confidence booster.”
The game -- Howland had called it the biggest of the year for his team -- figured to hinge on two main issues.
First, the Bruins wanted to control the pace.
That meant getting back in transition defense and shutting down Washington’s penetration. It also meant taking opportunities to push the ball upcourt and make some easy baskets of their own.
Which led to the second priority. UCLA needed to put up a decent fight on the glass against the Pac-10’s top rebounding team and top individual rebounder in forward Jon Brockman.
So UCLA had a plan -- and pretty much followed it through the first 20 minutes.
Washington (19-7, 10-4) got points from guard Justin Dentmon driving and Brockman bulling inside, but could not seem to get up to speed on the fastbreak.
The UCLA backcourt, Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday, was able to force turnovers. Swingman Michael Roll jumped in front of a post feed.
At the same time, the Bruins generated fastbreak points and got crucial offense from Shipp, who scored inside and out.
At halftime, they held a 25-20 rebounding edge and a 34-27 lead.
“We were not able to get stops,” Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We turned the ball over.”
There was another critical element, the residue of a glaring statistic from when these teams last met in Seattle. On that Saturday afternoon in Seattle, Washington outshot UCLA by a startling 43-15 from the foul line.
Thursday night was a different story.
In a game with fewer whistles, the Bruins drew fouls by pushing inside. As the home team this time, they finished with an 18-10 edge from the line, making 15 of the 18.
So if the Huskies were going to forge a second-half comeback, they were going to need production from Isaiah Thomas, their immensely talented freshman guard.
Ranked among the top scorers in the conference, Thomas began beating Collison off the dribble, driving for layups and sprinting out on fastbreaks.
Washington kept making runs, tying the score at 55-55, then closing to 71-69 in the final minutes.
Tight finishes can be a bit of a mystery for UCLA, a team that has yet to develop a go-to guy this season.
On Thursday, they relied on a small committee. Center Alfred Aboya -- badly dehydrated by flu -- made a pair of jump shots and Holiday drove for a critical basket. Collison and Shipp made free throws at the end.
Shipp led the team with 20 points, followed by Collison with 17 and Nikola Dragovic with 15. Dentmon led all scorers with 22 and Brockman, who fouled out, had 16.
It wasn’t so long ago that Howland predicted the winner of the Pac-10 would have four losses. That doesn’t leave his team with much room for error, but the Bruins can still see an opportunity.
“I never had doubts about this team,” Howland said. “We showed a lot of character the way we bounced back for this win.”