LOS ANGELES -- Yes, the UCLA Bruins can win games with their defense, too.
After four straight games of running and gunning their way to near-triple digits, the Bruins clamped down on the other end of the floor and defeated California 79-65 in a Pac-12 opener Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion for their sixth consecutive victory.
During the past four games, UCLA (11-3) has averaged 93 points and developed of a reputation as an offense-first team that needed to score as many points as possible because its porous defense couldn't be trusted. Thursday, the Golden Bears (8-5) shot only 39.5 percent from the floor, ending a string of three consecutive games in which UCLA opponents had shot 47 percent or better.
"It’s exciting about how we progressed today," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Today was a huge step forward. And our players, I think, are really I think understanding it."
Indeed, they are. Shabazz Muhammad, for instance, had his best defensive game of the season, especially effort-wise. He showed a high level of energy and was able to shut down his man several times in one-on-one situations. Muhammad is known as an offensive threat, a scorer who is an average defender but said he came to UCLA to improve defensively under Howland and is dedicating himself to doing just that.
"In the paper, people say I can’t play defense, but I can play defense," Muhammad said. "That really motivates me. That’s why I practice and I’m really working hard on it. I thought tonight was a defensive-state-of-mind game tonight, and I thought I did a good job."
The Bruins played the entire game in a man-to-man defense, and it's no stretch to say it was their best performance in that scheme this season. Early on, the Bruins' man-to-man was like a fawn learning how to walk. Howland, who this week called the early-season man-to-man "horrible," even implemented a zone defense for use in several games despite the fact that he abhors playing zone.
But the man-to-man sparkled Thursday, especially considering Cal coach Mike Montgomery is known for an offense that executes to perfection and rarely makes mistakes.
"It means a lot to us to win that way against a team like this," Bruins guard Norman Powell said. "We know we needed to tighten up on defense after the last few games, so to come out and win this way is big for us. Defense is going to win games for us. We know we can score when we want to on offense with the weapons we have, but relying on defense is crucial and that’s why we got the win. We created turnovers, forced bad shots, and we’re able to get out in transition."
Part of it is the players are finally beginning to understand the importance of solid defense. Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are playing major minutes as freshmen and none of them was a very good defender when they arrived at UCLA. Powell is a sophomore who played sparingly last season.
In high school, those guys didn't need good defense because they were so much better than most of their opponents. In college, they are figuring out that you can't get away with that type of play, and all of them had their best defensive game of the season on Thursday. Muhammad and Powell stood out.
"Shabazz is really growing defensively, and that’s probably the most pleasing thing," Howland said. "He’s never had to play this hard at that end of the floor. This is a whole new thing that he’s being asked to do. He’s really taking the challenge on and doing a great job."
Of Powell, who teamed with Adams to hold Pac-12 leading scorer Allen Crabbe to five points on 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, Howland called it "one of his best games of his career here."
"His defense was absolutely unbelievable in that first half," Howland said of Powell. "He was great defensively. A lot of what he did doesn’t show up in stats, and I’m really pleased and happy for him."
The most improved part of UCLA's defense was the cohesion. Early on, players looked lost as they tried to stay in front of their man, fight through screens, switch and rotate to help one another. They simply could not do those defensive fundamentals effectively. They played well in spurts in recent games, but on Thursday, they looked like they knew what they were doing for about 85 percent of the game.
"It shows a lot," Muhammad said. "We’re an offensive team and now we’re going out with our defense. Cal is a really good team with Crabbe and [Justin] Cobbs and guys like that who are good in our league, and to show that we played really good defense really sets our team up for a good outing in the Pac-12."