UCLA hasn’t meshed well with the Big West lately.
Last season, the Bruins’ freshman honeymoon was thrown off course in just its second game when UC Irvine strolled into Pauley Pavilion and took UCLA to overtime. The Bruins escaped with a one-point victory but were caught sleeping just four games later against Cal Poly, which handed UCLA its first home loss of the 2012-2013 season.
On Tuesday night, California’s little conference of nightmares was at it again, this time represented by UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos outshot and out-hustled the Bruins for much of the game but couldn’t hang on, falling 89-76 to a UCLA team that is 8-0 for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.
“Really proud of our guys. This was not going to be an easy game, we knew that,” said coach Steve Alford. “Just looking at the schedule knowing that you have to play Friday, Sunday and then going to Vegas and having two games of that four-game tournament, I think the toughest game is when you come back home.”
Even tougher were the first few minutes. Early foul trouble for sophomore center/forward Tony Parker quickly turned what was a nine-man rotation for the majority of the 2013 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational into eight. With 18:41 remaining in the first half, Parker committed his first foul. Just over 30 seconds later, another whistle cued Parker’s exit to the bench, where he sat for the remainder of the first half.
In his absence, UCLA relied more heavily on a combination of redshirt senior forward Travis Wear and freshman forward Wanaah Bail. In just his third collegiate game, an inexperienced Bail notched just four first-half minutes while Wear showed that he still is working to come back to full speed after a recent appendectomy, going scoreless in his 11 minutes to start the game.
The Bruins’ strategy for much of the first half was to double-team UC Santa Barbara’s junior forward Alan Williams, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound bruiser who squeezed South Dakota State for 39 points and nine rebounds on Nov. 29. The plan worked to perfection as Williams scored just six first-half points, but UCLA forgot to defend the other four players on the floor.
The Gauchos went 9 of 14 from three-point range and shot 60 percent for the half, leading by as many as six points with 5:22 left to play.
“We had such a big emphasis on stopping Alan Williams that they made a lot of tough shots,” said sophomore guard Kyle Anderson. “I credit them, they made a lot of three-pointers and it was just tough to guard.”
The leading hand behind a UCLA effort that eventually played to a 42-42 tie at the half was freshman guard Zach LaVine, whose off-balance jump shot makes off the bench were just about the only thing that had Pauley Pavilion’s nearly 7,000 fans standing early on.
“I’ve been comfortable with my role from the start, being an energizer and helping the team,” LaVine said. “I just put some shots up and hopefully they go in.”
In the second half, the No. 18 Bruins took control by examining tradeoffs. Though Williams collected 17 second-half points, the Gauchos’ shooting frenzy cooled to a manageable 46.4 percent. The Bruins also did a better job of driving the lane and collected, making 17-of-23 second-half free throw attempts.
“We’re driving the ball very hard, and I think we’re very hard to guard in transition,” Alford said. “We had six guys shoot free throws tonight, so it’s not just one guy getting to the line or one guy making shots.”
The Bruins will try to build on their second-half improvements in their first true road game of the season at Missouri on Saturday.