In many ways, the UCLA men’s basketball team’s game against Arizona State on Thursday was a fresh start.

A chance to erase a nonconference schedule the Bruins and their fans would rather forget.

An opportunity for senior forward Nikola Dragovic to find a shooting touch that has been noticeably absent so far this season.

The possibility to open up the “new season” the way past Bruin teams were accustomed to: with a win.

The Bruins (6-7, 1-0 Pac-10) claimed a 72-70 victory over the Sun Devils (10-4, 0-1) after holding on in the final seconds to end the decade on a positive note.

“Bottom line is we start a new season today,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were 5-7. Like I said before, we were disappointed in that, but “¦ it’s a new beginning when you start conference play.”

All five Bruin starters finished in double figures. Dragovic scored a game-high 23 points, while sophomore Malcolm Lee added 16 points, senior guard Michael Roll had 12 points, and sophomore point guard Jerime Anderson and freshman forward Reeves Nelson each had 10 points.

Leading the way for the Bruins was Dragovic, who tied a career-high with 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 6-of-8 from 3-point territory.

Dragovic, whose 3-point shooting provided the Bruins with a potent threat last season, entered Thursday’s game shooting just 31.3 percent from the floor, including a mere 21.7 percent (10-of-46) from beyond the 3-point line.

Yet in the first half against Arizona State, the Dragovic from last season seemed to awaken as he made all five of his shots (all 3-pointers) in the half.

“It felt like old times,” Dragovic said. “It felt good.”

Dragovic added that he believes the extra shooting and practice he has put in during his early season slump finally paid off. But in addition to work on the court, Dragovic referred to off-the-court issues as another reason for finally rounding into form.

On Dec. 21, Dragovic pleaded not guilty to a felony assault charge.

Last season, Dragovic was arrested after a dispute with a former girlfriend. That year, Dragovic rebounded from a rough start to the season to finish the year shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from 3-point territory.

“Maybe these past two years I’ve had problems in the same period of the year,” Dragovic said. “But by the New Year, everything’s kind of settled down, and I’ve got it off my mind.”

Dragovic’s hot shooting was emblematic of the Bruins as a whole, as the team shot a torrid 83.3 percent (15-of-18) from the field in the first half, the highest field-goal percentage for a half this decade for any UCLA team.

In the half, the Bruins shot over the Arizona State zone defense that gave the team such trouble in their two matchups last season, heading to halftime up 42-31.

“We should have had a better lead at halftime than we had, but that’s just me being picky,” Howland said. “I’m just glad we got the win.”

A game that seemed pretty much in hand turned into a nail-biter for the 8,008 in attendance at Pauley Pavilion. An 8-0 run by UCLA turned a one-point game into a nine-point Bruin lead with 1:53 to play. Yet the Sun Devils would not quit, crawling back into the game on drives to the rim for easy baskets and poor UCLA free-throw shooting, all of which set up a scenario in which the Sun Devils could have come away with a victory on the last shot of the game.

After Nelson missed two free throws with the Bruins up 72-70, Anderson blocked Arizona State’s Jerren Shipp’s 3-point shot, clinching the win for the Bruins in the Pac-10 opener.

“If we just step up and make our foul shots down the stretch, we don’t have Jerren Shipp with a chance to win the game,” Howland said. “Just glad it worked out.”

An interesting subplot to the game was a Howland-coached team playing a zone defense. Known for his man-to-man defense, Howland switched to a zone defense after a timeout in an attempt to cool off and confuse Arizona State.

And it worked.

The Bruins’ zone played a large role in the team’s 14-0 run in the first half that turned a two-point deficit into a nine-point lead.

Howland admitted that coming into the game, he had no intention of playing zone. Rather, it was a game-time decision.

“They were scoring so easy on our man that I wanted to make an adjustment and see what happened,” Howland said. “It really did stun them. I mean, UCLA playing zone. We don’t play zone very much so they were I think surprised, needless to say. And we did a good job in it, matching up, and it really helped us build that lead.”

As for the players’ thoughts?

“I thought hell froze over,” Roll said.