Onward … and upward?
UCLA gets a crack at first-place California on Saturday, with the Bruins able to claim they are at least on the fringe of the Pac-12 Conference title race.
The Bruins' 72-61 victory over Stanford at the Sports Arena on Thursday night earned them a spot in the upper half of the Pac-12. As for any higher aspirations, UCLA can address those Saturday, when the Bears, who at 9-3 share the conference lead with Washington, drop by.
The Bruins tuned up for that with a sloppy performance in which they were the better team, grading on a curve. Lazeric Jones scored 21 points, including a waiting-to-exhale moment with a three-point shot to spark a 10-0 run that gave UCLA a 63-53 lead with two minutes left.
Stanford lent a hand, playing as if turnovers were an intricate part of the game plan. The Cardinal finished with as many turnovers, 22, as field goals. UCLA had a season-high 15 steals and 11 blocked shots.
"We are trying to take it one game at a time, but we all know what the situation is," said Jones, who had six assists and six steals. "We know we need big wins and we need to get a lot of wins."
The Bruins, 14-10 overall and 7-5 in conference play, can get one Saturday against a California team that methodically disassembled UCLA, 85-69, on Dec. 31, leaving the Bruins with an extra New Year's resolution: Play better defense.
"None of us came ready to play that game," UCLA center Anthony Stover said. "With Cal being one the best teams in our league, we have to be ready this time."
Stover said he felt that loss coming before the game began.
"I told Josh [Smith] before the game that 'I'm not feeling this. Our team doesn't feel here today.'" Stover said. "I could feel it in my teammates. I know these guys. I spend every single day with them. The attitude was not there. I don't know if they were not there mentally in their own worlds, or whatever they are doing. I just felt a little off that day."
The Bears have been among the conference leaders since that victory and, at 19-6 overall, have the best record among Pac-12 teams.
"We're looking forward to playing this team and showing more than we did the last time," Stover said.
The Bruins prepped for it with an uneven performance against the Cardinal.
Stanford (16-8, 6-6 Pac-12) had 13 turnovers before halftime. UCLA parlayed such generosity into a 19-2 run for a 25-9 lead with nine minutes left in the half. The Bruins led 35-27 at halftime.
Yet what could have a much-needed breather was filled with hyperventilation-type moments throughout the second half. UCLA turned over the ball 19 times.
But Jones and Jerime Anderson, who had 12 points and six assists, did enough to keep the Cardinal at arm's length.
Forward Travis Wear, playing despite a high ankle sprain, had 13 points off the bench and offset the foul trouble that Smith and David Wear were in.
"It felt fine. Once you start going, you forget about the pain," Travis Wear said.
The Bruins hope to dull a little more pain against Cal on Saturday.