Inconsistent Bruins keep winning

UCLA players celebrate during their 73-72 overtime victory over Arizona State. Jennifer Stewart/US Presswire

TEMPE, Ariz. -- So the UCLA Bruins have reached the midway point of the Pac-10 season, and really not much has changed from when conference play began.

The Bruins are a young team going through on-the-job training while wandering through the first half of the conference schedule.

That was clear during UCLA's 73-72 overtime victory over Arizona State on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Arena in a game that encapsulated the inconsistent way the Bruins have played this season.

At times, they look like conference-title contenders; at others they look like bottom feeders. Oftentimes that split personality surfaces during the same game.

That's what happened Saturday, when UCLA (14-7, 6-3) raced to a 15-point lead early in the second half, led by 10 with 8:11 to play in regulation and by eight with 3:05 to go, but couldn't put away the last-place Sun Devils (9-12, 1-8).

In the second half, the Bruins played as if the game were already over, or as if they didn't care that it was still going. UCLA failed to play defense in transition, failed to box out against a much smaller and much less talented team and again failed to play hard for a full 40 minutes.

UCLA outrebounded Arizona State 24-14 in the first half, but the Sun Devils outrebounded UCLA 24-18 in the second half. UCLA held Arizona State to 20 percent shooting in the first half, but the Sun Devils shot 57 percent in the second.

Those are statistics of hustle and desire and it seemed the Bruins had little of either as they went through the motions after intermission.

"Just underestimating them," Bruins forward Tyler Honeycutt said when asked about the second-half letdown. "Coming out, you know we do well in the first half, we take it for granted and we don't come out in the second half and play as hard. It's another game we've got to learn from and just get better."

The trouble is that UCLA has been saying that a lot lately and doesn't seem to be learning.

The Bruins nearly let a 14-point second-half lead slip away in a 74-73 victory over UC Irvine just before Pac-10 play started. Against Oregon State, the Bruins let a 17-point, second-half lead disappear before winning 62-57.

Against California, UCLA had a 14-point lead with 4:07 left but Cal tied the score before Reeves Nelson tipped in a game-winning basket with two seconds to play.

It's both lucky and telling that those meltdowns have come against mediocre teams that had a combined record of 38-42 entering Saturday. It's lucky because UCLA probably would have four more losses if that had happened against better teams.

It's telling because it's clear UCLA lacks the mental toughness, maturity and composure to take every game as seriously as it needs to be taken.

You can live with Thursday's loss to Arizona because, quite frankly, the Wildcats were a better team. But there is no excuse for going to overtime against the last-place team in the league after taking a 15-point second-half lead.

"Sometimes we start getting a little panic, a little shaky and all that, especially at away games where the crowd is into it and they're speeding up everybody," guard Malcolm Lee said. "That's why you always see Coach sometimes calling random timeouts just to settle us down and keep our composure."

These are the types of games that have Bruins fans pulling out their hair. Bruins fans, not surprisingly, have very high expectations. But there is one thing to remember about all those lackluster performances: UCLA won all four of those games. Not only that, but the Bruins have now matched their win total from a season ago with at least 11 games remaining.

And these near-losses are learning experiences for a very young team. Two sophomores, Nelson and Honeycutt, are the team's two leading scorers and rebounders. Center Joshua Smith is a freshman, guard Lazeric Jones is a junior college transfer playing on the big stage for the first time.

These guys haven't had these types of experiences before, not at this level, anyway, so there is a chance that they are, in fact, learning and that being in adverse situations could help them sometime down the road, say like in March. We might be witnessing a young team growing up on the court right before our eyes.

"When we're up, although we let them come back, we still stuck in there and didn't let it completely turn around and we still came out with the win," Lee said. "Although we're giving up some leads, I feel down the road it's going to help us a lot with all this adversity and this experience."

But it's these spurts of inconsistency, this lack of experience and maturity, that are the reasons UCLA is in third place in the Pac-10, and it's pretty reasonable after the first half of Pac-10 play to surmise that third place is exactly where the Bruins will end up.

Washington and Arizona are clearly better than the Bruins. USC is a difficult matchup for them because USC's major problems come against zone defenses and UCLA doesn't have one of those.

And even though the Bruins struggle mentally against lesser teams, they have managed to defeat the teams they are supposed to defeat.

Perhaps that is why UCLA coach Ben Howland called the victory over Arizona State a "great win," even though it really wasn't. Perhaps that is why Nelson curtly said "No" when asked if winning that way was frustrating in any way.

"That's all that matters," Nelson said. "The win."

Howland praised his team for not crumbling after Arizona State had come back. He seemed pleased his team found a way to win a road game under difficult circumstances and said he hoped the Bruins might learn a lesson.

"That every game it's understood that anybody can beat anybody on a given night," Howland said. "That we have to play really well to have success."

Sometimes the Bruins do just that. Sometimes, they don't.

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.