After two and a half games of lackluster play, UCLA finally broke out of its early-season doldrums with a dominant second-half performance in a 92-60 victory over Chaminade on Monday in the Maui Invitational.
The Bruins were coming off losses to mid-majors Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee and appeared headed for more of the same early on against Division II Chaminade, but finally began to look like the team that began the season ranked No. 17 in the nation and selected to win the Pac-12 conference.
UCLA's lead was only 40-38 in a back-and-forth first half that made it seem as if the Bruins might never break out of the funk that had beset the team this season, but they finally found an offensive groove with four players in double figures scoring and hunkered down on defense, limiting Chaminade to 20 percent shooting in the second half.
1The Bruins can breathe a sigh of relief
Sure, it's only a victory against a Division II school, but UCLA needed any kind of victory at this point. And the level of play in the second half is what you would expect for a top-tier team against an inferior opponent. UCLA outscored Chaminade, 52-22, in the second half, and that type of play should help restore some confidence the Bruins had lost, no matter who the opponent.
Yes, the Bruins are supposed to win games against Chaminade by 32 points, but at least they did what they are supposed to do. The last two games they didn't and started 0-2 for the first time since 2002-03. By winning Monday, they avoided their first 0-3 start since 1940-41.
2Reeves Nelson gave the team an emotional lift
Nelson, suspended for a game last week because of conduct issues and again for the first half because of a violation of team rules, entered the game with 16:37 to play and UCLA clinging to a 48-43 lead. By the time he went back to the bench for a rest, UCLA had a 63-48 lead.
Nelson scored only one point during that run and he finished with only one point, but he energized the team when he came on the floor by being very vocal. He had a blocked shot and an assist during the run and was a force on the board for the entire time he played. He had five rebounds in 11 minutes.
His attitude can fluctuate, but clearly Nelson is a major asset to the team when the "good" Nelson shows up.
3The guards shot their way out of their slump
Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb struggled badly from the field in the first two games, combining to make only eight of 38 shots, but they were two of the three leading scorers Monday. Jones led the team with 19 and Lamb had 15. Jerime Anderson, the third guard, was second with 18 points.
Combined, they made 20 of 37 shots (54 percent) and Anderson made four of six 3-point attempts, ending a dismal start for the Bruins from long range. UCLA made nine of 25 3-point attempts for the game, but connected on six of 11 in the second half. Entering the game they had made only six of 35 3-pointers and they made only three of 14 in the first half before finding their strokes.
4Joshua Smith dominated when he played
There is no doubt that Smith, the 6-foot-10, 305-pound center, is as dominant a post player as there is in the country and he showed it once again with 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots, but the key stat for Smith is 22 minutes.
Smith appeared clearly winded at times and had to ask out of the game when he was unable to continue because of conditioning issues. He was able to finish better around the basket, making five of six shot attempts including two dunks, but that took a lot out of him.
His defense suffered and he picked up a couple of needless reaching fouls, though he did also draw a charge. If Smith could stay on the floor for 30 minutes and play at a high level on both ends for 30 minutes, he could turn into an All-American.
5UCLA's defense seemed more in sync
After two games of dismal defensive performances, UCLA finally figured out how to stop an opponent. Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee combined to shoot 57.4 percent against UCLA and a mind-boggling 76.9 percent on three pointers, but Chaminade had only 29.8 percent for the game and 22.2 percent on 3-pointers.
The return of center Anthony Stover from a shoulder injury intensified the defensive energy and the Bruins finally were able to use their height advantage. UCLA had 12 blocked shots Monday night, double the number of blocks they had in the first two games combined.
They still have a ways to go as a defensive team, especially in helping off of screens and defending penetrating dribblers, but Monday was a step in the right direction, especially the second half.