LOS ANGELES -- UCLA dug deep Wednesday night to overcome an 11-point first-half deficit and pull out an 80-71 victory over Washington State in a Pac-10 Conference opener at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins (9-4) hunkered down on the defensive end, showing the heart and determination to make such a comeback against Washington State (10-3), a team that had previously lost only to Kansas State and Butler.
"That was a great win against a very good team," coach Ben Howland said. "I’m really proud of our team the way we showed the character to fight back."
UCLA outscored Washington State, 51-34, in the second half, fueled by a 20-6 run to begin the second half. The Cougars shot only 37.9% in the second half after making 14 of 27 shots (51.9%) in the first half, helping UCLA start the conference season with a victory.
"It was a gut check," said Bruins guard Malcolm Lee, who had 21 points. "It shows how much heart we have. They went on a little run and we didn’t get down on ourselves. Basketball is a game of runs and we just happened to make a run at the right time."
Five observations from the game:
1. Tyler Honeycutt started rusty, but finished strong
Honeycutt, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, appeared out of sorts in the first half as he came back from a sprained shoulder that caused him to miss UCLA's last game.
He went scoreless for the first 18 minutes, 24 seconds and had only three rebounds in the first half, but finished with 14 points and nine rebounds--right about at his season averages--after a strong second half.
"I was looking to shoot too fast," Honeycutt said of his first-half struggles. "I just needed to take my time and let it open up to me, which I did in the second half. Right off the bat I got an assist to Reeves [Nelson] and just from there the game just came to me."
In the first half, Honeycutt was trying to force things. After not scoring for the first 14 minutes, he made a bad pass that turned into a turnover, then hoisted a poor three-point shot and had a shot blocked--all on consecutive possessions.
Howland pulled him aside at halftime and tried to calm his leading scorer.
"I told him to let the game come to you," Howland said. "Concentrate on rebounding and defending and it will. I think he really did that."
2. Defense turned the tide
In the first half, the Bruins played a bit lackadaisically, allowing Washington State players to continually beat them down the floor and the Cougars scored many of their points in transition. At halftime, the team talked in the locker room about stiffening up their defense and trying to make Washington State make plays in the half court.
It worked. Washington State's Klay Thompson, the Pac-10's leading scorer, had 14 points on three of eight shooting in the first half, but went more than 15 minutes in the second half without a field goal. He finished with 26 points on six of 17 (35.3%) shooting.
"We were doing a good job containing him in the half court, but he was getting loose in the open court," said Lee, who guarded Thompson most of the game. "We were just trying to make him go to the basket instead of setting up for jumpers."
3. UCLA's run was a thing of beauty
The Bruins appeared to take their game to another level during the second-half run that won the game for them. They became more physical, started fighting for rebounds and played with more passion on the defensive end.
The crowd sensed it and rallied behind the team, leading to the most lively Pauley Pavilion has been this season.
Honeycutt made three-pointers on consecutive possessions about three minutes into the second half, starting a run of four UCLA three-pointers in five possessions. That burst turned a 39-33 Washington State lead in to a 51-45 UCLA lead.
UCLA never looked back. The Bruins eventually went up by as many as 13 points at 78-65 with 1:17 to play, all thanks to the momentum siezed during that crucial run.
"[Honeycutt] knocked down those two threes, he really catapulted us back with his play there early in the second half," Howland said. "He really was the guy that keyed our comeback with some offensive firepower."
4. Reeves Nelson showed up
After disappearing a bit against UC Irvine last week, Nelson turned his game up a notch with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
He displayed tenacity and determination that was missing against Irvine, running the floor and finishing on the offensive end and fighting for rebounds on both ends.
One of the more impressive parts of Nelson's performance was that he played in foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul with 9:10 to play, but only came out for a short time and didn't foul out.
"When you have four fouls, you just have to play smarter and less aggressive," Nelson said. "It does limit how aggressive you can be. I just tried to play smart position defense."
Nelson was excellent in transition, running the floor and making several nice catches on long passes that had people thinking about his ability as a receiver in football.
Football coach Rick Neuheisel, in attendance Wednesday, might have been taking notes--something Nelson didn't want to hear.
"I just hope coach Neuheisel wasn’t at the game tonight," Nelson said. "He might need a new quarterback and receiver with me and Tyler [Honeycutt]."
5. Joshua Smith makes a big difference
Smith again found himself in foul trouble and started the second half on the bench. He came in at the 18:39 mark and UCLA trailing, 39-31. When he left the game for a breather at the 13:34 mark, UCLA led, 49-43.
Smith had only two points during that run, but his presence in the middle opened up the outside, giving Honeycutt, Jones and Lee the room they needed to make three-pointers.
Smith finished with eight points and six rebounds in only 17 minutes, but his presence was felt and it makes Bruins fans long for the 6-10, 305-pound center to stay on the floor more.
"We just had to jump on them," Smith said of the key run. "They came out and punched us in the mouth in the first half and we came out and punch them in the mouth and just kind of set the mood for the game."
Smith, too played with four fouls for much of the second half and he did not foul out. It affected his play on the defensive end, but he was able to use his size and strength to rip rebounds and muscle in for scores even though he had foul problems.
Smith said he was surprised that Howland put played him so much with four fouls, but that he knew what to do when he was in there.
"This was another game where I was in foul trouble," Smith said. "When I was on offense, I was just trying to grab boards. I honestly didn't think I was going to play until the end."