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After a thrilling overtime win against a top 10 opponent and five days to bask in the victory, it would have been easy for UCLA to lose the sense of urgency that had been driving its five-game win streak.
In the early minutes of Thursday’s game, it seemed they might have. The Bruins got off to a slow start offensively, falling behind the Golden Bears early, but were able to build a 10-point lead by the end of the first half.
Even though Cal cut the deficit to as little as two possessions during the second half, UCLA held on for a 79-65 win in its Pac-12 opener. The Bruins have now won their last six games.
“We were a little anxious early,” coach Ben Howland said. “Everybody was because we knew what a big game this was. It’s conference play.”
The Bruins were not as dynamic as in their recent win against Missouri but they did enough to defeat the Golden Bears, who have now lost five of their past seven. UCLA shot 44.8 percent from the field, including 4 for 12 from three-point range. Cal was 0 for 13 from behind the arc. UCLA held Cal to 39.5 percent shooting, a percentage Howland was especially pleased with.
On a night where the Bruins were not at their peak offensively, the team’s defensive improvement was evident.
“We played man to man the whole game. I thought we did really good (with our) help-side defense and especially helping off penetration and rotation down – the second rotation especially,” redshirt junior Travis Wear said. “I think our defense performed well. Once we cut down on second opportunities we will be really good.”
Howland singled out sophomore Norman Powell’s defensive performance as “absolutely unbelievable in the first half.” Powell did not seem to be bothered by an ankle sprain sustained against Missouri, adding 10 points off the bench, including two crowd-pleasing dunks. Powell’s second dunk came with 12:22 left in the second half, giving UCLA a 53-43 lead.
Cal countered with a 14-8 run to cut the deficit to four before the Bruins came storming back with seven straight points to eventually put the game out of reach. Freshman guard Kyle Anderson had four of those seven critical points.
The freshman led the team with 19 points and 12 rebounds, notching his fourth double-double of the season. Anderson’s boards were especially crucial for a UCLA squad that had eight fewer rebounds than Cal on the game.
“Well I think it all started with defense. We got some stops, we were able to score on the other end and it just opened it up for us. But it all started with defense,” Anderson said.
Correction: “I thought we did really good (with our) help-side defense and especially helping off penetration and rotation down,” redshirt junior Travis Wear said.