Despite slide, Pac-12 title still in reach

LOS ANGELES—The UCLA Bruins have new life.

A week ago, they walked off the court at Pauley Pavilion dejected, embarrassed and counted out of the Pac-12 race because they had fallen three games behind Oregon after an inexplicable loss to USC.

Now, with Oregon getting swept in the Bay Area last week, UCLA (16-6, 6-3) remains only one game out of first place with nine regular-season games to go. The second half of conference play begins with a home game against Washington (13-9, 5-4) Thursday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

Oregon (18-4, 7-2) and Arizona (19-2, 7-2) are tied atop the standings with UCLA tied with Arizona State (17-5, 6-3) for third place.

“We’re right back in there,” freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad said. “The SC loss was so disappointing for us and we were all down and then when we see these other teams starting to lose, we’re like we can be right back in first place.”

For now, however, the Bruins are thankful that they are only one game out of first place despite losing three of their last four games, including that overtime loss to USC last Wednesday.

“It makes me feel like if we had held on to a two-point lead and got a stop in our last game we’d be tied for first, too, but we didn’t and we are where we are,” coach Ben Howland said. “This league, though, you can see there are a lot of good teams. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night. It’s been proven.”

The loss to USC served as a bit of a wake-up call in that regard, freshman guard Jordan Adams said.

“It’s a minor step back but we have to keep looking forward from that,” Adams said. “Our coaches brought that to our attention. We have to keep going out there and playing hard whether we get a good win or a quality win.”

The Bruins got some help in the Pac-12 race last week, but that’s not something they want to rely on getting much of in the second half of conference play. Still, it’s a jolt of fresh confidence to know that the conference title is still within reach after the feeling they had a week ago.

“It’s huge now that we’re only one game out again and anything can happen at this point,” junior forward Travis Wear said. “With such a close race we need to go out and perform in the remainder of our conference games to get back up top. It’s going to be tight. It’s anyone’s race at this point but it feels good to be right there. Our goal is to win the conference and we’re right back in it.”