LOS ANGELES -- UCLA had to sweat out a 74-73 victory over UC Irvine Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, once again taking a big lead and unable to put away the opponent.
The Bruins led, 47-33, with 16:51 to play, but let Irvine slowly creep back into the game. UCLA made only two of 10 free throws in the final 5:26 and two of eight in the final 55 seconds.
Meanwhile, Irvine got a three-point play from Patrick Rembert with 39 seconds to play and a three-point basket by Darren Moore with seven seconds to play to cut the lead to one.
But Irvine (6-6) was unable to get off a final shot after Tyler Lamb missed a couple of free throws with six seconds to play and the Bruins (8-4) held on for their fifth consecutive victory.
"It was real scary," said Bruins guard Malcolm Lee, who scored 20 points. "We could have made it not so intense if we could have made our free throws. At the end it was real intense, but I’m just happy we got the W."
Five observations from the game:
1. Depth is a concern for the Bruins
Leading scorer and rebounder Tyler Honeycutt missed the game because of a sprained shoulder, leaving the Bruins with only eight scholarship players. Forward Brendan Lane got into foul trouble, meaning other players had to play more minutes.
Reeves Nelson played 33 minutes. Tyler Lamb played 23. Jerime Anderson played a season-high 26.
The effects were clear as the Bruins' defense struggled in the latter part of the second half.
"A lot of that was legs," coach Ben Howland said. "You get a diminishing return, especially in a fast-paced game like that."
2. Reeves Nelson pulled a disappearing act
The Bruins may have actually been playing with only seven scholarship players. Nelson, the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder, was benched to start the game because he was late for a shootaround and never seemed to get going.
He finished with eight points and seven rebounds but had a long stretch from the 8:40 mark of the first half to the 3:11 mark of the second half where he had only three points and one rebound.
"I’m sure it affected him," Howland said of Nelson's starting the game on the bench. "Of course it did. That’s why it can’t happen."
Add in Lane's foul trouble -- he picked up his fourth with 13:04 to play -- and the Bruins were playing extremely thin without a full effort by Nelson. Lee said Nelson's performance tends to affect the entire team.
"He’s one of our key components on this team with scoring and rebounding," Lee said. "Usually when he plays well, we play well."
3. Lazeric Jones put his offense on display
Jones scored a season-high 20 points, tying for the team best. He basically became a zone buster by making four of eight three-point shots, also season highs for three-pointers made and attempted.
His final line of 20 points, six assists and three rebounds was by far his best game of the season and it came in handy with Honeycutt and his 14.9 points a game out because of the injury.
"With someone out, we all need to step up," Jones said. "Coach talked to me last night and told me I needed to be more aggressive. I tried to do that without forcing anything."
4. The Bruins still haven't mastered the zone
After showing signs that they had figured out how to play against a zone defense, the Bruins regressed in that department.
UC Irvine played a more compact zone and double-teamed the UCLA post players, who had been effective against the zone in recent games.
That basically forced UCLA into taking outside shots. Luckily for the Bruins, they made 10 of 20 three-point attempts for a season high in three-pointers made.
"Sometimes we made shots and sometime we didn’t, but we can’t let teams force us to shoot jumpers all the time," Jones said. "When they give us open shots, we can still drive and penetrate, which we didn’t do that well tonight."
UCLA came into the game shooting only 33.1% from three-point range, so the Bruins probably don't want to rely on having shooting nights like Thursday against the zone. Lee said the Anteaters' zone was different than others they had seen.
"When our big guys got it inside, they couldn’t turn or maneuver," he said. "There weren’t a lot of driving gaps or opportunity to do work inside, that’s why they forced us to shoot outside. We need to get back in the lab and work on some more zone offense because a lot of teams are going to start to zone us."
5. The Bruins need to find a killer instinct
The pattern of playing down to the level of the competition is disturbing. For the second consecutive game, UCLA has had inferior teams on the ropes before letting them back in.
Luckily for the Bruins, they have managed to hold on and win those games, showing some growth from a Dec. 5 loss to Montana. UCLA has played at a high level at times this season but will need to play with intensity night in and night out to get into the Pac-10 title hunt beginning next week against Washington State.
"It’s a collective effort," center Joshua Smith said. "We've played games when we’ve played hard. We know how to play hard. It’s just all up here [pointing to his head]. It’s nothing physical."
Despite the sluggish effort, the Bruins did win and that was at least some consolation for Howland.
"It would have been a horrible Christmas around the Howland household had we lost this game," Howland said.