UCLA beats Arizona in Pac-10 tournament opener


The reviews were in quickly, even before UCLA players had peeled off their uniforms in their Staples Center locker room.

“My dad just called me,” UCLA senior forward Nikola Dragovic said. “He asked me how come we don’t play like that all the time.”

Good question.

Maybe the Bruins just weren’t ready to take a final misstep in a woeful season. Or maybe it was the bounce—along with the elbows—forward Reeves Nelson’s provided in his return from an eye injury.

Whatever the case, a different UCLA team showed up Thursday.

The Bruins came into the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament with a three-game losing streak and a season to forget. They now have a few things to remember after a 75-69 victory sent them into a Friday quarterfinal against regular-season champion California.

For one, they showed they can play some man-to-man defense, using it to knock the Wildcats off balance and keep Arizona’s Kyle Fogg in a haze.

In doing so, they expressed their will against a team that had swept them during the regular season by taking senior Michael Roll’s pregame words to heart: “I just want to keep playing,” he told them.

They also showed they are a better team with Nelson in the lineup, as he provided 19 points, 10 rebounds and a couple of don’t-mess-with-me moments.

The Bruins (14-17) shot 53% and, despite a resume that would suggest UCLA might stand for Ugly Collapse, Lost Again, held off an Arizona team that pulled to within 58-55 with eight minutes left.

The Bruins, who shot 62% from the free-throw line this season, made five of six down the stretch to fulfill Roll’s request.

“I told them, ‘Whether it’s clapping on the bench or coming in and taking a charge, do something to help the team,’ ” said Roll, who had 18 points. “I’m not ready to go home.”

Roll started things off by sinking a three-pointer to give UCLA a 3-2 lead. The Bruins never trailed from there.

“Mike doesn’t say much, so when he does we listen,” freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt said.

Nelson let his actions do the talking. He sat out the last four games following laser surgery to repair a partially torn retina in his left eye. He returned wearing goggles that he loathed—”The nose piece falls off, they fog up,” he said—but still made eight of nine shots.

He also brought an edge the Bruins lacked in his absence.

“When he plays with reckless abandon, he’s very effective,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.

Nelson got real effective after missing a shot and falling on his back early in the second half. As Arizona’s Solomon Hill jogged by, Nelson kicked him.

Nelson received an intentional foul, but the Wildcats received a message.

“He’s basically playing like football player out there with no pads,” UCLA guard Malcolm Lee said. “I kind of feel sorry for the other team because you’re going to get elbows, you’re going get banged up and you’re going to leave the game with bruises.”

Arizona had Derrick Williams, the conference’s freshman of the year, but Nelson was the freshman of the moment. Williams, a 59% shooter, made only five of 15 shots.

Meanwhile, Arizona (16-15) failed to Fogg up.

Fogg scored 26 and 25 points in two regular-season victories over UCLA. But the Bruins opened in a man-to-man defense, which seemed to throw off the Wildcats. Fogg finished with 10 points, making four of 12 shots.

UCLA went back to a zone defense in the second half, disrupting Arizona more. The Wildcats shot 40% and made only four of 19 three-pointers.

“We realized this could be the end,” UCLA’s Dragovic said. “We’re not ready for that.”