The UCLA men’s basketball team set out on its “revenge” tour of the Pac-12 conference on Thursday when it played host to Stanford at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, hoping to avenge December’s one-point loss to Stanford.
The teams’ previous meeting featured a seesaw battle in which UCLA never led during the second half. Thursday, the Bruins played tough defense throughout and prevailed with a gritty 72-61 win in their second go around with the Cardinal.
“I think we’re a much improved team than when we played in late December and I think they’re a better team,” said a relieved UCLA coach Ben Howland. “We built a nice lead in the first half twice and each time they grinded their way back into the game. We hit some big shots down the stretch.”
The Bruins opened the first half strong, building a 16-point advantage but as this year’s Bruin team is wont to do, they started the second half by letting the Cardinal sneak back into the game. Rather than letting their double-digit second half lead erode like they did three times earlier this season, the Bruins buckled down.
UCLA (14-10, 7-5 Pac-12) put to use the defensive techniques that Howland has built his career around, coming away with a season-high 15 steals and 11 blocks. UCLA also made the most of Stanford’s (16-8, 6-6) miscues by putting in 28 points off turnovers.
“It was a tightly called game so we tried to do our best to get them to take bad shots,” said redshirt sophomore forward Travis Wear. “When you play good defense like that, we’re going to come up with steals and blocks.”
Senior guard Lazeric Jones turned heads in the second half when he made an acrobatic steal and turned it into a behind-the-back fast break assist all in one motion. Fellow senior guard Jerime Anderson finished the job.
“I saw the play developing so I just ran up court and I knew he would get the ball to me, but I didn’t think he would throw it behind his back,” Anderson said of the play.
With the win, UCLA’s home record now stands at a perfect 5-0 in conference play, remarkable considering the Bruins haven’t played a game on campus all season.
The Sports Arena again showed flashes of what a home-court advantage can really offer, building on a Jan. 28 win over Colorado in which Howland applauded the fans’ enthusiasm.
Enigmatic sophomore center Joshua Smith followed up arguably the best weekend of his UCLA career with a sloppy performance Thursday. The big man picked up three fouls in the first half and was forced to play the majority of the second half while trying to avoid a foul-out.
Howland said the key to sustaining success for Smith is to “stay out of foul trouble and slow down.”
“I’m sure he’ll bounce back on Saturday,” Howland said.
UCLA now looks forward to Saturday’s matchup with California, who beat USC on Thursday and now finds itself in a tie for first place in the conference; as Oregon beat previous frontrunner Washington at home on Thursday.