UCLA has a pretty good place among the Pacific 10 Conference’s muddled masses . . . first.
Of course, first place includes 40% of the conference, with two other teams lurking one game back. But the Bruins walked away from Pauley Pavilion after surviving against Stanford, 77-73, with their fourth victory in five games.
“We’re just a good team,” freshman Tyler Honeycutt said.
That may be enough to be dominant in the Pac-10 this season. Trouble is, everyone else can claim that as well.
Stanford certainly could, with its tag-team offense. Landry Fields had 35 points and Jeremy Green 18, putting on a second-half exhibition by scoring 34 of the Cardinal’s 41 points, while forcing the Bruins out of their 2-3 zone defense.
Yet the “just a good team” mantra took hold.
Honeycutt finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals. Reeves Nelson bullied his way to 18 points. Malcolm Lee, Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic made key free throws in the final two minutes.
And the Bruins (11-11 overall, 6-4 in conference play) even showed they could play a little man-to-man, as Coach Ben Howland’s preferred defense sparked a 9-0 run that turned the game around.
All in all, a good but not great performance that left UCLA tied for first place with California, Arizona and Arizona State.
“I’m not too worried about that,” Howland said, following it up with the tried-and-true “I’m taking it one game at a time.”
Still, Howland has scanned the rest of the conference and come to the conclusion that, “There is no one where you can say, ‘Oh, we’ll win that one.’ There is no team like that.”
Stanford (10-12, 4-6) could be that team, as the Cardinal’s only victory away from Palo Alto is on foreign soil. Stanford beat Virginia in Cancun, Mexico, and is 0-9 away from home in the United States. Still, the Cardinal is no gimme, not with Fields and Green.
It was Green who torched UCLA for 30 points in a victory in Palo Alto last month. The Bruins were aware, with players pointing at him to make teammates aware where he was at all times.
So Fields made 13 of 18 shots.
Fields’ layup off an offensive rebound gave Stanford a 60-54 lead with eight minutes left. The Bruins went man, Howland’s preference until his current team changed his mind.
The zone has become so embedded in the Bruins’ game plan that they have not worked on man defense in practice, “not a bit,” Howland said.
They seemed to remember how. Stanford, leading 60-56, made only two of six shots and turned the ball over three times in the next five minutes.
“I think it confused them,” Roll said.
The Bruins’ offense, meanwhile, was a share-and-share alike outfit, with 6-foot-8 Honeycutt directing much of it.
Honeycutt’s pass to Nelson with time running out on the shot clock resulted in a layup and a 67-62 UCLA lead with four minutes left.
“The thing he does is see the floor,” Howland said. “He has height, Magic Johnson height. It gives him opportunities.”
The Bruins shot 58% in the second half. They also made 18 of 26 free throws. UCLA had only five turnovers. All were areas where they labored earlier this season.