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UCLA beats Washington State, 80-71, in Pac-10 opener

The start of the “season within a season,” as UCLA Coach Ben Howland likes to call Pacific 10 Conference play, had an unfamiliar feel to it.

And that was a good thing for the Bruins.

UCLA was the team putting together the inspired comeback and playing crisply in the final minutes for a change, rallying for an 80-71 victory over Washington State on Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion.

Sophomore forwards Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt led the charge for the Bruins, who used a 20-6 spurt at the beginning of the second half and some stingy defense over the final 20 minutes to pull out their sixth consecutive victory.

“I’m really proud of our team, the way we showed the character to fight back,” said Howland, whose team had been on the other end of recent rallies by Montana State and UC Irvine. “This is a huge win for us.”

Nelson finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds and Honeycutt had 14 points and nine rebounds in his return from a sprained right shoulder. The pair did most of its damage after a halftime locker room discussion among the Bruins, who then trailed by eight points.

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“We’re a team and we like to talk, so that’s what we did,” said Nelson, whose 13 second-half points were one more than Honeycutt scored over that span.

The duo hooked up on the play that seemed to seal the Cougars’ fate. Honeycutt secured a rebound and fired a long outlet pass to Nelson, who bulled his way toward the basket for a layup that gave the Bruins a 62-54 lead with 6½ minutes to play.

“I just hope Coach [Rick] Neuheisel wasn’t at the game,” Nelson said, referring to the Bruins’ football coach who was indeed in attendance. “He might need a new quarterback and receiver with me and Tyler.”

Malcolm Lee provided a two-way threat, scoring 21 points and playing admirable defense on Washington State guard Klay Thompson. The Pac-10’s leading scorer had 26 points but made only six of 17 shots, crediting the Bruins with changing their defensive approach on him in the second half.

“They stopped me from getting to the rim and made me pull up more,” Thompson said.

The Bruins (9-4, 1-0) held Washington State (10-3, 0-1) to 37.9% shooting in the second half while making 60.7% of their shots.

The way UCLA opened the second half prompted the same fans who had verbally chastised the Bruins in the first half to suddenly rise to their feet in applause.

Honeycutt scored eight points during the 20-6 run, including back-to-back three-pointers, and Lazeric Jones and Lee each added a shot from beyond the arc to give UCLA a 49-43 lead.

“I haven’t seen our crowd that loud in a long time,” Honeycutt said.

Jones finished with 10 points and a career-high 11 assists, with only one turnover. Nelson and UCLA center Joshua Smith both managed to avoid fouling out after Smith picked up his fourth foul with 10:16 to go and Nelson with 9:10 remaining.

“You don’t want to foul out,” Nelson said. “You have to be less aggressive and be smarter about how you play.”

Honeycutt was far more assertive in the second half, taking seven of his 11 shots as UCLA won for the first time in five games this season when trailing at halftime.

“We were having fun out there,” Honeycutt said. “The momentum was flowing for us and we were playing well defensively as well.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com


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