LOS ANGELES -- UCLA overcame another sluggish start and roared back to rout Arizona State, 71-53, Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, setting the stage for a first-place showdown with No. 10 Arizona on Saturday.
The Bruins (20-8, 11-4) pulled to within a game of Arizona, which lost to USC Thursday night.
But to get there, UCLA had to withstand an early dry spell against last-place Arizona State (10-17, 2-13). The Bruins made only one field goal in the first 7 minutes 41 seconds and fell behind, 21-9, after making only two of their first 16 shots. They caught fire, making 10 of 12 shots in the final 8:50 of the half, closed with a 30-8 run and led, 39-29 by halftime to take control.
"This doesn’t feel like an 18-point win," coach Ben Howland said. "I'm just really pleased we got the win."
Five observations from the game:
1UCLA came out flat once again
The Bruins said they had learned a lesson from Sunday's loss at California, when a sluggish start cost them the game, but they apparently hadn't.
Arizona consistently beat UCLA in transition early on and made seven of their first eight shots -- many on easy layups and around stone-footed UCLA defenders. UCLA, meanwhile, was ice cold from the field and had only two field goals more than halfway through the first half.
"We were frustrated with how we started off the game, knowing we were going to have to fight back into it," said Bruins forward Tyler Honeycutt. "Especially getting close to the end of the season we keep doing that and it's something we have to learn from and fix."
At this point in the season, it's probably safe to assume UCLA is going to have stretches like this where the Bruins lose focus. Whether it's starting slow and falling behind or getting a big lead and blowing it, the Bruins seem to thrive on adversity and play best when under the gun.
"We’ve been through a lot," center Joshua Smith said. "We’ve had crazy games, runs, started slow. Our biggest thing is we don’t panic."
2Defense brought the Bruins back
With UCLA shooting cold, the Bruins needed to hunker down on defense to get back in the game. They did exactly that, with freshman guard Tyler Lamb coming off the bench to inject some defensive energy into the team.
After Arizona State made seven of its first eight shots, UCLA limited the Sun Devils to only five of their next 20 for the rest of the half. They had seven steals and two blocked shots in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
"It starts with stops," Lazeric Jones said. "Early in the game we weren't getting enough stops."
The staunch defense continued in the second half as Arizona State made only one of its first seven shots after the break and UCLA opened a 49-33 lead. Arizona State shot 42 percent for the game, but it was only 33 percent after the first six minutes.
No Arizona State player scored in double figures and Reeves Nelson and Smith each had three blocked shots.
"Once we took the lead, we started to settle down," Howland said. "This team does a good job of fighting back from deficits when we’ve had them this year."
3The inside-out approach worked to perfection on offense
The Bruins started small, with three guards and two forwards, and early on they weren't hitting outside shots against the Arizona State zone. But once Smith came in and gave UCLA a major post presence, UCLA's offense opened up.
They made four of five three-point shots during a 30-8 run to end the first half after making only two of their first seven.
"We have faith," Howland said. "We’re working a lot on our shooting. I think it’s especially important when you’re facing a zone."
But so was the presence of Smith and Reeves Nelson inside. Smith had a pair of big dunks during UCLA's run, and he drew a great deal of attention every time he touched the ball. He finished with 12 points. Nelson had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
"Josh got going for us offensively," Howland said. "He was hurried a little bit the first couple of times he caught the ball. Once he started to slow down, that was good when he started to go aggressively."
And when he did that, it sent an energetic vibe throughout the team.
"Whenever Josh dunks it’s going to get us all hyped up," Nelson said.
4UCLA's balanced offense made the Bruins difficult to defend
UCLA was scoring from everywhere, with Smith, Nelson, Honeycutt, Jones and Malcolm Lee all reaching double figures in scoring, continuing a season-long trend. All five are averaging in double figures for the season.
"It’s a nightmare for the other team because when they’re going over scouting reports there is more than one guy they have to worry about," said Lee, who led the team with 16 points.
The Bruins weren't only balanced but also efficient. They had a season-low nine turnovers and a season-high 22 assists. Jones was particularly efficient with 10 assists and no turnovers.
"That's really nice," said Howland, whose team is last in the Pac-10 with 15.4 turnovers a game. "We can do it."
5This victory made Saturday's game a huge one
It was already going to be filled with emotion and hype because it's the last game being played in the "old" Pauley Pavilion, but now that Arizona lost and UCLA can get into first place Saturday, it became doubly important.
The key, Lee said, is too try not to make it too big.
"We can’t come out over hyped because then sometimes that can come back and bite us in the butt," he said. "We have to come out intense, but not over intense and definitely not sluggish like we did today because a good team, a top 15 team like Arizona will take advantage of that and run away with it."
Howland warned Arizona was going to be "an angry team" coming off of the loss at USC and said the Wildcats will still be the same team that beat the Bruins, 85-74, on Jan. 27.
"It’s a big game because they are a very good team," Howland said. "You know they are going to come in here very motivated."
Smith said he would try hard to keep the game in perspective.
"It's only the next game on our schedule," he said. "The season is not over after Saturday. There is still one week in the Pac-10 after that. We just have to prepare like it’s another game on our schedule."