UCLA defeats St. John's; Off the bubble?

LOS ANGELES--The must-win portion of UCLA's schedule is officially over. Now, the Bruins head into the must-not-lose stretch.

UCLA passed the biggest hurdle remaining on its road to the NCAA tournament by spoiling Steve Lavin's return to Pauley Pavilion with a 66-59 victory over St. John's Saturday in a nonconference game that probably took UCLA off of the bubble and into the bracket.

Along with it's victory over Brigham Young, UCLA now has two victories over highly-regarded teams that will look nice and sparkly on its resume come tournament selection time.

The key now is to not trip up. UCLA (16-7) can probably afford a loss or two in its final eight regular-season games, as long as they are against Arizona or Washington. If they are against anyone else, it's bubble time again.

So while UCLA's turnover-filled victory Saturday wasn't the prettiest to watch, it might end up being one of it's best looking on paper at the end of the season.

"It’s a big win for us," forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "This team had a top 25 RPI, they just beat Duke who is No. 3 in the country so we kind of had a part of that win. We need this real bad."

Five observations from the game:

1The Bruins are a team on the rise

For much of the season, UCLA has walked a thin line between mediocrity and quality, leaving fans wondering exactly what kind of team they had.

Such is the nature of a young team with no seniors.

But the Bruins are showing signs that they are growing up and learning from past mistakes. They are playing a more consistent brand of basketball. Against St. John's, they thwarted run after run, played fundamentally sound when they needed to and showed poise under pressure.

"We’ve tried to be very patient with our guys and I think we’re growing now," coach Ben Howland said. "Our team has good chemistry, they like each other, they care about one another, they’re unselfish. We’re much better than we were in New York. We’ve improved dramatically from where we were as a team in November.

"That’s what you want to do is to continue to improve as a team as you go and play your best basketball as you go into March."

2Joshua Smith is the poster child for UCLA's growth

Smith tied a career-high with 19 points and added eight rebounds and three blocked shots Saturday, continuing a stretch of dominant play.

He's averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds over the past three games and, perhaps more importantly, he's averaging 25.6 minutes per game.

In 19 previous games, Smith had played that many minutes only twice because of consistent foul trouble. But in a clear sign that he's figuring things out at this level, Smith has been called for only seven fouls over the past three games and at least two of those were very questionable calls.

"This is three games in a row now where you can see he’s no longer a freshman," Smith said. "He’s really growing as a player. He’s an unbelievable force down there at both ends."

It all started with a change of mindset. Last week, Smith vowed to try to dunk more and Saturday he came off the bench and his first four shot attempts were dunks that helped UCLA overcome a slow start and an early 13-5 St. John's lead.

"My game plan was just to be aggressive," Smith said. "When I came in wanted to give the team some energy and help the team out. And when you dunk, you get the team riled up and the crowd riled up."

3UCLA got physical

St. John's brought its Big East style of play into Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruins were not intimidated.

The Red Storm fouled UCLA 23 times and sent the Bruins to the free throw line 41 times, but Reeves Nelson, the Bruins' resident muscle, led a strong UCLA stand and wouldn't let the team back down.

"Anytime an East Coast school comes into the West Coast, they’re going to try and bully you, but we don’t really have any little sissies on this team," said Nelson, who had 12 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. "You could just tell that they knew that they were going to try and—the term we used today was punk us—and we just weren’t really having that and I was really proud of the team for standing up and being tough."

The Bruins' 40-28 edge in rebounding was a clear sign that they readily accepted the challenge of the physical game.

"Before the game we talked about how they were going to try and be aggressive with us and we wanted to show people that we aren’t soft," said Lazeric Jones, who was whistled twice for throwing elbows. "You get that kind of image out here on the West Coast so I feel we came out and gave it a good shot."

4Poor free throw shooting almost cost UCLA the game

Yes, UCLA got to the free throw line 41 times, but they made only 27 of those attempts for 65.9 percent. In the final 3:47, they made only three of 10, with Nelson and Malcom Lee going 0-6 as St. John's trimmed a 60-50 deficit to 62-59 with 2:07 to play.

The Bruins got some key offensive rebounds off missed free throws, which helped alleviate the pain, but it's a dangerous game to rely on those types of plays.

"For the upcoming games we’re going to have to knock these free throws down," Lee said. "The free throw game, basically we need to step it up. 27 of 41 is not going to get it done. But on the flip side, we had 40 rebounds t their 28 so that’s what kind of saved us."

5Reeves Nelson became Mr. Clutch again

It wasn't quite as dramatic as his game-winning tip-in at the buzzer Jan. 20 against California, but Nelson made a crucial three-point shot as the shot clock expired to give UCLA a 65-59 lead with 34 seconds to play.

The shot squashed the spirit of St. John's, which did not score again in the game after having closed to within three points with 2:07 to play.

What made it even more improbable is that the play was not designed for Nelson and that Nelson entered the game only three for 15 on three-pointg attempts this season.

"That was not drawn up by me," Howland said. "That was him popping out and making a play and thank you Lord, because that was huge."

Nelson had not attempted a three-pointer since Jan. 20 against California and had missed his last seven three-point attempts. The last time he made one was Dec. 11 against Cal Poly.

But after Howland drew up the play, Nelson told in-bounds passer Jerime Anderson to look for him if the called play--designed to go to Joshua Smith and Malcom Lee wasn't open.

"I was just going to pop out to the three and shoot it since there was only two seconds on the shot clock," Nelson said. " I got a pretty decent look at it and I knocked it down that was the game, really."