Smith misses bus, but UCLA gets it rolling in Pac-12 tournament

UCLA coach Ben Howland sat center Joshua Smith in the first half after the center missed the team bus. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- Joshua Smith has pretty bad timing, so Ben Howland pretty much had no choice.

Smith, UCLA's sophomore center, missed the team bus to Staples Center for a first-round game against USC in the Pac-12 tournament and Howland suspended his 6-foot-10 inside force for the first half of UCLA's 55-40 victory over the Trojans.

The team is staying at the J.W. Marriott at L.A. Live -- just a five-minute walk to Staples, and Smith actually beat the team bus to the arena because the bus had to navigate the one-way streets, traffic signals and downtown L.A. traffic.

But because of all the scrutiny surrounding UCLA basketball in the wake of a Sports Illustrated report that alleged, among other things, a lack of discipline by Howland for transgressions by standout players, Howland had to take action for a seemingly harmless incident.

So as No. 5-seeded UCLA suffered through a miserable first 15 minutes against No. 12 USC, Smith sat planted on the bench unable to help his team get out of an early-game shooting funk all because he was four minutes late for the bus in pretty much the worst possible week he could have been late for any team function.

"It’s just one of those where coach made a decision and I’m not going to fret with the decision he made," Smith said. "I was late and I deserved to be punished and when he told me, I had no problems with it."

Certainly UCLA could have used Smith. The Bruins made only three of their first 20 shots from the field, unable to take advantage of a major size advantage mostly because Smith was not on the floor. USC, a team that won only one conference game all season, led, 17-9 with 6:35 left in the first half.

Still, Howland stuck to his guns even as he watched his team settle for jump shots as USC packed the middle with defense because UCLA did not have Smith in the game establishing a much-needed inside threat. Howland said Smith's tardiness has not been an issue in the past, but it was clear that he had to send a message with the program under so much scrutiny this past week.

"It hasn’t been something that has been a problem with him ever being late to the bus, but I don’t care," Howland said. "This is too big and too important."

Perhaps the strangest element to the whole incident is that UCLA is actually taking a bus from the hotel. All teams stay at the same hotel and most of them walk. Howland said that last year, when UCLA lost to Oregon in the first round of the conference tournament, the team walked from the hotel and the experience was unpleasant.

"It’s a whole going through a tunnel and walking through people who are out drinking and hanging out at L.A. Live and so I wanted to avoid that this year," Howland said.

Smith blamed his tardiness on the time on his phone and said he understood why Howland had to discipline him. It just so happens Smith is named in the Sports Illustrated article as a player who receives special treatment from Howland.

"All coaches are like that," Smith said. "I wouldn’t say this has anything to do with the article, it’s just him integrating his system and I’m a player so I’m going to listen. I’m a player and he’s the coach."

OVERVIEW: The early part of the game was among the ugliest basketball you will see. The teams started a combined 0-for-11 from the field and were a combined 7-for-37 with just over eight minutes to go in the half before the Trojans opened their 17-9 lead.

UCLA rallied back at the end of the first half, by making six of their last nine shots of the half during a 13-4 run that gave the Bruins a 22-21 halftime lead and momentum. Lazeric Jones, who led the Bruins with 15 points, scored five in the final 3:35 of the first half. Travis Wear, who had 12 points and eight rebounds for the Bruins, scored four points during that half-ending surge.

TURNING POINT: Halftime. After UCLA made that late first-half run, USC scored the first points of the second half, but UCLA then went on a 17-2 run and took control of the game.

UCLA eventually opened a 50-33 lead with 7:18 to play, weathered a last-ditch effort by the Trojans before putting the game away.

"I think today starting out the way we did, I was proud," Howland said. "I don't think there was any sense of panic in our guys. I think that they showed a good resolve and toughness that we're going to get this going. Finally we did. That's what you have to have. It's never easy.

UCLA STAR OF THE GAME: Travis Wear had 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting with eight rebounds and seemed to come up with the clutch plays when UCLA needed them most. He scored eight of his points over a stretch late in the first half and early in the second as UCLA turned a 17-9 deficit into a 39-25 lead. He had UCLA's first four points in the second half as the Bruins took the lead for good.

STAT OF THE GAME: USC shot 28.8 percent for the game, including 2-for-15 (13.3 percent) on 3-pointers. The poor shooting, a problem all season for the Trojans, offset UCLA's 23.3 percent effort in the first half and 33.9 percent for the game.

"Normally you don't win games by 15 shooting 33 percent from the field," Howland said.

WHAT IT MEANS: No matter how ugly it may have been, the Bruins got off on the right foot with the victory. They are going to have to win four games in four days to make the NCAA tournament and getting a lesser opponent in the first round to shake off the jitters is exactly what the Bruins say they needed.

"It was a little ugly out there but that’s why I think it’s a good thing that we could get this first game and see it as a positive rather than a negative having to play more games," guard Jerime Anderson said. "You get a feel of the floor and how to play out there and what to expect more so. Especially for guys who haven’t played in Staples. I think it was a good thing for our comfort."

Next up for the Bruins is No. 4-seeded Arizona, who will be without suspended guard Josiah Turner. The Bruins and Wildcats (21-10, 12-6 Pac-12) split two regular-eason meetings with UCLA winning, 65-58, at the Honda Center in January, and Arizona winning, 65-63, Feb. 25 in Tucson.