LOS ANGELES -- It took UCLA more than 10 minutes to finally wake up, but the Bruins overcame a sluggish start and defeated Stanford, 68-57, in a Pac-10 game Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins fell behind, 22-8, after making only two of their first 12 shots and committing six turnovers in the first 11 minutes, but then clamped down on the defensive end to claw back into the game.
They trailed only 27-26 at halftime then took control with a late second-half surge to pull away for their fourth consecutive victory and 10th in their last 12 games.
"That was obviously a very important win for us," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We started out really shaky. We just kept battling, trying to find a way to battle back.
UCLA improved to 13-6 and 5-2 in the Pac-10 Conference while Stanford dropped to 10-8, 3-4 with its fourth loss in five games.
Five observations from the game:
1The Bruins have grown tremendously since the beginning of the season.
This is exactly the type of game UCLA could not win in November. Twice during the NIT Season Tipoff in New York, UCLA fell behind early and could never climb out the hole. They trailed 8-0 against Villanova and by the same score against Virginia Commonwealth and never led in either game.
Saturday, UCLA fell behind 8-0 again. But two months later, they managed to fight their way out of it. UCLA, which made only two field goals in the first 11:53, held Stanford scoreless for a span of six minutes, 20 seconds near the end of the first half and turned a 22-8 deficit into a 24-24 tie before going to halftime down a point.
"I think it's growth," said guard Malcolm Lee, who tied a season high with 23 points. "The more games we get, the more experience we have and just learning from past experiences, we know how to come back from those kinds of situations."
It was the second time in three games that UCLA has come back from an early deficit. Last Saturday at Oregon, the Bruins fell behind, 25-13, but rallied for a 67-59 victory.
"Every game, we’re looking a little bit better," Tyler Honeycutt said. "Our confidence is growing. We’re just seeing what we’re capable of."
2Malcolm Lee is making a run at Pac-10 defensive player of the year honors.
Lee, who every game is assigned to guard the opposing team's best player, came through again by holding Stanford's Jeremy Green to 12 points on four of 15 (26.7%) shooting. Thursday against Cal, he was a thorn in Allen Crabbe's side and he also flustered Oregon State's Jared Cunningham last week.
"There’s not a better defender maybe in the country at the wing as Malcolm Lee," Howland said. "Malcolm Lee is as good a defender as you’ll see. He proves it time and time again. He can defend anybody. He reminds me a lot of Russell [Westbrook] that way."
Add in his 23 points and he easily had the most complete game of his college career.
"I’m just really proud of what he does for our team night in and night out," Howland said. "Not only is he scoring 23 points, but he’s guarding the other team’s best player. He’s got the toughest job and he was outstanding."
3UCLA found a formula to win without Joshua Smith
Smith sat out Saturday for precautionary reasons after banging his head on the floor early in Thursday's victory over California.
The absence of the 6-10 freshman center figured to be a challenge for UCLA against Stanford, which has good size up front with Josh Owens (6-8), Dwight Powell (6-9) and Jack Trotter (6-10). Those three scored 10 points during Stanford's 18-8 run to start the game, but combined for only 12 more the rest of the game.
Freshman center Anthony Stover was a major reason. He played a career-high 23 minutes and his tight defense flustered Stanford's inside players.
"You can see Anthony is a presence defensively for us inside," Howland said. "He’s probably our best post defender on the team. Stover did a great job — things that don’t show up on the scoresheet are things that he did well."
Smith told Howland before the game that he could have played, but Howland didn't want to risk it.
"We’re always going to err on the side of caution with anybody’s health," Howland said. "That kid has a long career ahead of him and we don’t want anything to disrupt that."
To win without their big man was another injection of confidence for a team that appears its ready to challenge for the Pac-10 title.
"It shows how good we are," Honeycutt said. "Josh is our most dominant player matchup wise."
4The small lineup worked well even against a bigger team
UCLA started using a three-guard lineup with Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson last week against Oregon mostly because Reeves Nelson was in foul trouble. But Oregon didn't have major size in the post.
The Bruins went to it again Saturday against Stanford, and it worked again. It certainly hurt UCLA's rebounding, as they lost the battle of the glass, 44-37, but it certainly fueled the offense. Honeycutt especially benefited by moving from the small forward to the power forward because his athleticism makes it difficult for opposing power forwards to guard.
Honeycutt, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, really started to get going once the Bruins went small. He scored seven points during UCLA's 12-3 run to close the first half and scored seven points as UCLA began to pull away in the middle of the second half.
"When Honeycutt matches up on the four, we’re a better offensive team, there’s no question," Howland said. "When he can do that, it makes us harder to defend. Jerime and Zeek [Jones] in there with Malcolm, that’s our best offensive lineup, no question."
5Reeves Nelson turned in a gutty performance.
With Smith out, Nelson became the inside scoring threat for UCLA but wasn't having much luck. Stanford continually double teamed him, blocked his first shot and forced him into a couple of early turnovers.
He didn't score in the first half, and finished with only four points for the game, but he began doing the little things to help the team. Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer, finished with a team-best 10 rebounds, seven of which came in the second half. He also played good defense inside
Midway through the second half, he sprained his left ankle, but came right back in and continued to rebound and play good defense.
"Reeves showed some toughness," Howland said.
Nelson said after the game that the ankle sprain might be worse than he first thought. He said he was feeling pain and swelling and hoped to rest it as much as he can during the next couple of days.
"I’m just going to take this day and a half of rest and try to get better," he said. "The doctor said just to wait till we come back on Monday and they’re going to reevaluate it."
Nelson said he sprained the same ankle once before and that it kept him out of action for a week and a half. He wasn't sure if he'd miss any time because of this injury.
"I'm kind of glad that it’s the same one because they say the first time you sprain your ankle is the worst," he said.