It’s been a year since the No. 4 UCLA men’s basketball team (15-1, 2-1 Pac-12) has won back-to-back conference games – beating Arizona and Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion.
They’ll get a chance to do so again Sunday night against a Stanford team (8-7, 0-3 Pac-12) looking for its first conference win.
Last year, the Bruins lost to the Cardinal 79-70 in Palo Alto despite then-juniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton’s combining for 39 points.
UCLA’s inconsistent defense especially down the stretch allowed Stanford to use a 9-0 run to snatch the lead.
The Bruins’ high-powered offense carried them Thursday night against the Cal Golden Bears, but the defense will need to show up for the whole game if they want to avoid splitting their second straight Pac-12 series.
“In the first half, I thought that was as good defensively as we have (been) any 20 minutes all year long, and we thought it was going to be easy and we shut it down in the second half,” said coach Steve Alford. “You can’t do that in this league. The league is too good. We just did not rebound or defend in the second half like we did in the first half.”
That second-half defensive lapse cost them in their lone loss of the season – on the road against then No. 21 Oregon – and a near-loss against California.
Despite trailing by double-digits for most of the game, the Golden Bears clawed their way back in the final minutes.
The fast-paced Bruins were unable to get stops, a crucial component to fueling their offense, and couldn’t get the shots to fall as easily as they did in the first 20 minutes.
Getting those stops in the first half against California allowed them to space the floor to get the open 3-point looks or drive past the off-balance defenders.
Senior Bryce Alford, who shot 5-of-7 from three-point range before finishing with 24 points, said playing strong defense allows the team to stay a step ahead on the offensive side of the ball.
“One of our biggest things is pace and space. A lot of that has to do with defense as you can get out and really space the floor that way,” Bryce Alford said. “It’s not so much about getting the shot up early but about flying around. We are a quick, fast team so we are trying to set screens and move around a lot side-to-side.”
That cycle of fast-paced offense fueled by their defense and rebounding has carried the Bruins to 16 wins, including the exhibition game against The Master’s University.
And one loss.
But with the bulk of conference play yet to come, UCLA still has time to solidify that cycle.
“That’s the one thing we have to keep working on,” said freshman guard Lonzo Ball. “We know our offense is going to be there and it did again tonight. It’s the defense that we need to keep working on.”