UCLA winning the hard way

LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland sits down occasionally. Not often. During free-throw attempts mostly. Even when he's sitting, he's still coaching.

He always has been this way.

The only difference now is that he has to be.

The rebuilding project he has taken on with this group of UCLA Bruins is a step-by-baby-step process. Slow, frustrating, longer than he ever expected, but maybe -- hopefully -- more rewarding than simply winning with the sure-thing, NBA-ready stars of his past successes.

This team, the one Howland has been coaching every waking moment the NCAA rules allow him to the past two seasons, is going to have to win the hard way.

The Duke way, where players stick around and learn something over a couple of years and then blossom as juniors as seniors.

There will be highlights along the way, like Reeves Nelson's game-winning put-back to clinch Thursday's 86-84 win over California.

But mostly there will be scratching and clawing, hustle plays and defensive stops.

There is no Kevin Love waiting in the wings. There isn't even a Jordan Farmar.

What there has been is slow, incremental progress.

"We just keep trying to add little stepping stones," forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "Just keep learning and executing. I think every game we're going forward, whether it's a win or loss. After our losses, we watch a lot of film and learn what we did wrong. After a win, it's the same thing."

In other words, Ben Howland has been coaching his butt off.

Thursday's game was a microcosm of the process.

UCLA had built a 14-point lead in the second half and was coasting. It wasn't pretty, but it was starting to resemble momentum after impressive road wins at the Oregon schools last weekend.

UCLA led by nine points with 1:49 remaining.

A mature team would simply run time off the clock, shoot as many free throws as they had to and get home in time to watch "American Idol" on TiVo.

UCLA did the opposite.

Shooting guard Malcolm Lee missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could've extended the Bruins lead to 12 points.

Point guard Lazeric Jones inexplicably tried to find Nelson on a fast break in the final minute, when he should've just run time off the clock.

Then Nelson couldn't inbound the ball under Cal's basket and was called for a 5-second violation, handing the ball back to the Golden Bears, who seemingly couldn't miss in the final four minutes.

"They just scored on us too easy," Howland said afterward. "We were giving up layups. It was like we weren't even playing defense."

Oh, and just to keep things interesting, Honeycutt turned the ball over on an ill-advised, one-arm pass to Jones in the backcourt to give Cal a chance to cut the lead to two. The Bears did, of course. And then on the next possession Allen Crabbe drained a 3-pointer to tie the score at 84-84.

What was left of the Pauley Pavilion crowd was frazzled and stunned.

"I'm pretty sure everyone who left early was listening in their cars going, WHAT?" Honeycutt joked afterward. " 'They tied it? What?' "

As for Howland ... he was standing. Coaching his butt off.

Asked afterward how to teach a team to have poise in tense, endgame situations such as Thursday, he said simply, "By doing it."

The last two seasons haven't been easy on anyone around UCLA.

The next year might not be either.

But UCLA appears to be moving forward, step-by-baby-step.

"It's great for us to get this win," Howland said. "We'll take it."

A few more of these and Howland might be able to take a load off and grab a seat every once in a while.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.