LOS ANGELES -- After a dismal start to the season, UCLA has found a little momentum at just the right time.
The Bruins defeated Richmond, 71-63, Friday night at the Sports Arena, giving them a five-game win streak in their final nonconference tuneup before heading into Pac-12 Conference play against Stanford and California next week.
UCLA (7-5) is a much different team at Christmas than it was at Thanksgiving, when the Bruins were 1-4 and fading fast. But thanks to a December surge, UCLA is headed back it the right direction at the right time of the season.
"It was important for us to start to put something together after starting off 1-4, 2-5," coach Ben Howland said. "We’re playing a lot better right now. The team is very cohesive, very together, very unselfish. They are having fun, they are enjoying each other. It’s really a nice family atmosphere and it’s fun to have that."
After losing three of their first four games at the Sports Arena, the Bruins have now won three in a row at their home away from home while Pauley Pavilion is under renovation. The win streak comes just as the Bruins kiss the building goodbye for more than a month.
They next play at the Sports Arena on Jan. 26 with road games at Stanford, Cal, USC, Oregon State and Oregon coming up and home games against Arizona and Arizona State at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
But more important than the venue is that the Bruins are gaining confidence as they head toward those all-important conference games.
"A lot of teams that do well in conference play are teams with momentum," center Joshua Smith said. "This is our fifth win in a row and Pac-12 is going to be harder so we need that momentum."
The victory over Richmond was especially important because it gave the Bruins a victory over a quality opponent. The Spiders (7-6) are the first team with a winning record that UCLA has defeated during its current win streak. UCLA's last two victories came against UC Davis (1-11) and UC Irvine (3-9), so the jury was still out on the Bruins.
The Spiders were a Sweet 16 team last season and though they lost three starters from that team, the victory carries a little more clout than any other UCLA victory this season.
"That was a very big win for us," Howland said. "A very important win."
Five observations from the game:
1UCLA was in the zone
The Bruins started out in a man-to-man defense, but after Richmond made six of its first 10 shots and took a 14-5 lead, Howland switched to a zone with about 15 minutes remaining in the first half. The Spiders made only two more field goals the rest of the half and made only three field goals the first 13 minutes of the second half as UCLA took control.
"Obviously if we hadn’t gone to zone, we wouldn’t have won the game," Howland said.
Richmond ended up shooting 33.3 percent for the game, marking the fourth consecutive opponent that UCLA has held below 40 percent from the field.
"The zone helped us a lot tonight," Smith said. "They were a hard team to guard in man and we’ve acknowledge the fact that we can run zone and it can work for us. It really helped us come back and it’s nice to have that when we need it."
2It was a balancing act for the Bruins
For the second consecutive game, UCLA had five players score in double figures. Lazeric Jones had 16 points, Travis Wear had 14, Jerime Anderson had 13, David Wear had 12 and Smith had 11.
And on a night when Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell, the two leading scorers from last game, combined for only five points on 2-for-13 shooting, the Bruins showed they have scoring depth up and down the bench.
"To get five guys in double figures, I really love that," Howland said. "When we get five guys in double figures we’re going to have a good chance to win."
3Jerime Anderson was a catalyst
Anderson had one of his strongest performances of the season with 13 points, six assists and a career-high seven rebounds. He led a second-half charge with 11 points after the break, including five during an early second-half spurt that turned a 24-24 tie into a 31-24 UCLA lead. The Bruins never lost the lead after that.
"It kind of opened a little bit more in the second half," Anderson said. "I picked my spots trying to get to the rack and I was more aggressive and that was it."
He was also key down the stretch, getting three assists in the final 3:30 as the Bruins staved off a late Richmond rally.
"He really orchestrated a lot for us," Howland said. "I thought Jerime had one of his best games of the season for sure."
4Travis Wear came up big down the stretch
Wear was having a rather pedestrian game until the final five minutes. He scored 10 of UCLA's final 17 points, including an alley-oop dunk from Anderson. He was 6 for 10 from the field, but was 5-for-5 in the last five minutes.
"I was just trying to be active, not thinking," Wear said. "I think I was over thinking when I was in there in the beginning. I was just trying to go to open spots and my teammates were able to look for me. I was just around the rim trying to be active."
5The Bruins had trouble finishing around the basket
The game easily could have been a blowout victory for the Bruins, but they missed on a number of point-blank shots in the paint. Smith, the 6-10 center, was only 3-for-9 from the field while Lamb and Powell, the team's two most athletic players, were unable to convert on several drives.
Richmond shot blocking specialist Darrius Garrett had five blocks and his presence altered several insode shots causing UCLA to miss some.
"I was just rushing," Smith said. "They did a good job of crowding the ball. I let the shot blocker kind of affect some of the shots I was taking, but I just tried to take it right at him."
Smith was 1-for-5 in the first half, but improved to two of four in the second half. He also made one of his best moves of the season by backing down Garrett in the post then turning and dunking on him. It was the type of aggressive move that has been missing from Smith's game most of the season.
"I got that dunk and it was some relief," Smith said. "I know I have to do that more. As much as I can, I have to try to go to the rim and finish."