The UCLA men’s basketball team had a little for everyone in its first game of the NIT Tip-Off Tournament, a 79-69 win over Pepperdine on Monday night.
The first 15 minutes of the contest were for the skeptics. For those of you who still haven’t recovered from last season’s disappointments, that first bit was meant to give you some bullets for your negativity gun.
You saw an offense that can’t create for itself and a defense that’s too slow to catch up from a crossover dribble. Expect plenty of stretches like that this season.
The rest of the game though, that was for you believers out there.
Trailing the school from Malibu 34-26 with the first half disappearing, UCLA picked up the intensity and showed why this Bruin team will win games this year.
The 26-2 run they peeled off to right the ship is something that maybe they would not have accomplished last season amid all the various future transfers when they still wore the blue and gold.
According to sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, that comeback may have been the increased camaraderie that this team keeps talking about playing out before our eyes. Nelson said his teammates picked him up in the locker room after he “played pretty crappy in the first half.”
“I do feel more comfortable with this team this year because these guys are all my friends, not just my teammates,” he said.
The Bruins are a young team, and young teams are known to cause some heart attack moments. Monday’s game was more of just an irregular heart murmur, but by salvaging the game and avoiding the upset, UCLA showed a glimpse of its upside.
“We are going to have periods like we had in the first half,” coach Ben Howland said. “I was just happy how we rebounded from that.”
The bounce back, which started at the tail end of the first half and lasted late into the second when Pauley Pavilion fans began heading for the exits, was about returning to the game plan.
The Bruins began to hit the fast break hard, like Howland keeps preaching to them, not that they need his motivation. Then, they crashed to the basket hard on the zone with Nelson, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, leading the way.
“In the first half, we weren’t really pushing as much as we wanted to because we weren’t really getting that many stops,” Nelson said. “Once we focused on that we really broke the game open.”
Tonight, UCLA will face Pacific with a chance at Madison Square Garden on the line, but they will have just eight scholarship players to help their cause.
If serious, the ankle injury suffered by starting guard Malcolm Lee will be quite a burden for this team’s skinny shoulders. When the Bruins were struggling to penetrate Pepperdine’s zone defense, that’s when they needed the stop-and-pop mentality that Lee seems to have developed recently.
Even without him though, UCLA’s other playmakers stepped up.
In addition to Nelson, his teammate forward Tyler Honeycutt added 16 points and whipped some mighty sweet passes to his teammates.
With a team like this, it will be hard to say whether you’ll get either heads or tails of its coin on a given night. Some nights you might even get a little of both.