ANAHEIM “”mdash; The UCLA men’s basketball team sat at the intersection of two transitions prior to Saturday’s matchup against Pennsylvania.
In the rear-view mirror was junior forward Reeves Nelson, dismissed a day earlier by coach Ben Howland. At the same time they were losing a key cog, the Bruins were also establishing a new defensive mindset that will stay with them for the remainder of the season ““ the zone.
For a day, UCLA didn’t look like a team in transition. The Bruins held off a late run from the Quakers to win, 77-73.
Howland hinted at it after last week’s loss to Texas, but finally deployed a zone midway through the first half and mixed it with man-to-man defense for the remainder of the game. It virtually eliminated any attacks to the basket for the Quakers (5-6), who chose to shoot over the top of the spaced-out defense.
“It’s not my preference, but I think it’s what’s fitting our team right now,” Howland said.
The zone forced long-range shots ““ the Quakers took four more 3-pointers than 2-pointers in the game – but Penn still was able to convert 12 of their 31 chances, with guard Tyler Bernardini hitting eight of his own.
Faced with the zone themselves at times, the Bruins (3-5) were more patient on offense. They worked their way inside-out with the ball and scored 34 points in the paint. Sophomore center Joshua Smith scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, including a backboard-shaking dunk.
Still, the Quakers made it a game with a 12-3 run that cut it to a four-point UCLA lead with 2:58 to play.
The Bruins closed out the game with a suffocating closing stretch, forcing a hot-shooting Bernardini into two more misses with the game still within the Quakers’ reach. Senior guard Jerime Anderson added an emphatic block, and a five-second inbounds violation got the Honda Center as loud as it had been during UCLA’s first of four home games in the venue.
“We’ve been in that situation where we’ve played a team that has shooters, like with Michigan,” said senior guard Lazeric Jones, who had a team-high 21 points. “We kind of broke down, so we were telling each other coming out of the huddle not to break down, not to give up on defense and keep fighting. To see that we came through at the end against a similar team gives us a lot of confidence.”
The Bruins hung their hat on their defense closing out the game but admitted they were still figuring out the zone, which they started focusing on just a few days earlier.
“We could be a really good zone-defensive team,” redshirt sophomore forward David Wear said. “We had some breakdowns in it but we’ve only been running it for a week now. We’re going to get back, work out some kinks, and I think we’ll be that much better.”
Improvements on a disastrous start to the season will have to happen without Nelson, who was the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder. On Saturday it didn’t look like UCLA missed Nelson on the court, but it’s a different story off the court.
“Personally, I felt like I lost a brother. Reeves is one of my closest friends, I love him to death,” Smith said. “Our attitude doesn’t change. Whoever’s on the team, we’ve got to go out and play hard with the guys we’ve got.”