UCLA wins, 86-84, after blowing big lead

LOS ANGELES--UCLA had another near melt-down, it's second in three games, but managed to fend off a late-game rally by California and defeated the golden Bears, 86-84, Thursday night in a Pac-10 Conference game at Pauley Pavilion.

The Bruins led, 73-59, with 4 minutes, 8 seconds to play, and still had a 79-71 lead with less than a minute to play, but needed a game-winning tip-in by Reeves Nelson with 2 seconds to play to secure the victory after California tied the game at 84-84 with a furious final-minute charge.

"How disappointing to let that lead slip away," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. "I’m just so grateful that we came out of this thing with a win."

Last Thursday, UCLA let a 17-point second-half lead slip away at Oregon State before rallying for a 62-57 lead.

"We just don’t want to lose the leads at all," said Nelson, who set a career high with 24 points with the game-winner. "That’s what we have to focus on. We’re really confident in our abilities to get out to leads but we just want to keep working on not blowing them and not being in that situation."

UCLA improves to 12-6 and 4-2 in Pac-10 play with its third consecutive victory. Cal, the defending Pac-10 regular-season champion, drops to 9-9, 2-4.

Five observations from the game:

1UCLA never seemed comfortable with a big lead

Every time the Bruins opened a lead, it seemed California came storming back. UCLA had leads of eight, seven and 11 points during the first half cut to two and three points in the first half. In the second half, they appeared to be pulling away before Cal made its late-game run.

The important thing is that UCLA never fell behind, which is a huge psychological factor. But lapses with big leads are a pattern with this year's team.

"I continue to say let’s just keep stepping on their necks, let’s keep them down, but sometimes it goes that way," guard Lazeric Jones said. "We made a lot of careless mistakes on our end, then we started pressing. We panicked a little with some of our passes instead of just being solid with the ball. We've just got to keep our composure."

2Joshua Smith's absence hurt the Bruins

Smith left the game after hitting his head on the floor in the first half. He has a mild concussion and will be examined before a decision is made on his availability for Saturday's game against Stanford.

Smith was a dominant force when he was on the floor, especially around the rim. He had four points and five rebounds in only six minutes. Four of those rebounds were offensive rebounds. California had nobody able to keep the 6-10, 305-pound freshman off the glass and Smith was primed for a huge rebounding game.

"Obviously not having big bear in there hurt us inside," Howland said. "We were short handed without our star freshman center and that definitely had an effect on the game."

3Reeves Nelson played with as much energy as he has all year

Perhaps it was because Nelson played only 15 minutes and fouled out of UCLA's last game without scoring, but he was a bundle of energy--especially on the offensive end. He had three dunks and a couple of fast-break lay-ins. He was making moves in the paint and on the baseline.

He finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes and it's no surprise that he sprinted in from outside the three-point line and tipped in Tyler Honeycutt's miss for the game-winner.

"I didn’t really look at it as an opportunity for redemption," said Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer for the season. "I’m not perfect and everybody has an off game. I just wanted to try and come out and do what I normally do. My teammates supported me and believed in me and that’s why I love them."

Howland was especially happy for Nelson, whose parents were at the game.

"For him to get that tip, to not give up, to not quit, to run the floor and get that last play, that was exciting," Howland said.

4Lazeric Jones was clutch at the end of the game

Although he would rather the game never got to that position, Jones stayed cool under pressure and kept California from taking the lead by scoring 10 of his career-high 24 points in the final 2:30 of the game. He made eight of 10 free throws down the stretch, including four of five in the final 41 seconds.

"That’s the purpose of coach wanting me to have the ball," Jones said. "You want to step up and make them for your teammates."

Jones said he relishes being the guy with the ball during pressure situations.

"I’ve always been that guy and I want to continue to be that guy wherever I am," he said. "Coach has that faith in me and my teammates have that faith in me and that gives me the confidence to step up there and knock them in."

5Tyler Honeycutt had his best game in a month

Honeycutt has been struggling with his shooting because of an injured elbow, but was sharp Thursday, when he had 15 points on five of nine shooting, including four of six on three-point attempts.

Honeycutt had made only five of 21 three-point attempts in his previous six games and was averaging only 10.9 points since injuring his elbow Dec. 2 against Kansas. His 15 points are the most he's scored since he had 17 Dec. 18 against Brigham Young.

"It felt good," Honeycutt said. "I’ve been playing through it the whole time and it hasn’t bothered me. I just wasn’t taking as many shots. I've just got to do what I’m doing, just be a little more aggressive."