UCLA takes step toward salvaging season and winning back fans

Jeff Eisenberg
November 29, 2011

LOS ANGELES — UCLA finally defeated a Division I opponent Monday night, not that many fans were at the 14,500-seat Los Angeles Sports Arena to witness it.

Thirty-four students made the 17-mile trek from campus to UCLA's temporary home in time for tipoff. Only a few more trickled into the student section by the middle of the first half. And the announced crowd generously listed at 3,885 was so lifeless in the opening minutes of a low-scoring game that one fed-up fan could be heard throughout the arena when he shouted sarcastically, "Beautiful basketball, Ben."

Granted UCLA's 62-39 victory over lightly regarded Pepperdine didn't conjure memories of the John Wooden era, but the Bruins at least began the process of winning over the fans they lost during their dreadful 1-4 start. They forced 15 turnovers, kept Pepperdine out of the lane and limited the Waves to 31.3 percent shooting, exactly the sort of increased effort a team that's desperate for a win should display.

"I thought our need for a win tonight was really exemplified by how hard our guys played tonight defensively," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We did a much better job of rotating, scrambling, helping, switching when we needed to switch. Our team defense was by far the best effort we've had all year. That's how we have to play."

If that level of satisfaction after shutting down one of the West Coast Conference's worst teams seems over the top, consider the struggles the Bruins have endured during the first two weeks of the season.

They dropped their opening two games of the season by double digits to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State. They lost all-conference forward Reeves Nelson to a brief suspension in between those games. And they came home from the Maui Invitational last week with only a win over Division II Chaminade to show for it.

A win over Pepperdine probably would be an unlikely turning point for UCLA, but the Bruins at least emerged with newfound confidence. The combination of an improved defensive effort from the whole team, 14 points from previously slumping point guard Lazeric Jones and a combined 18 points and 15 rebounds from the Wear twins enabled UCLA to build a 28-11 halftime lead and extend it to as many as 27 in the second half. {YSP:MORE}

"I feel like sometimes you've got to get a win to know how to win," Jones said. "To see us go out there, play hard, dive on the floor for balls and really help each other, that's what we need to do to win. Hopefully we can continue to do this for our next couple games."

Even though Monday's performance clearly represented a step forward for UCLA, the Bruins certainly did not quell some of the concerns about their long-term outlook.

First of all, UCLA still has to prove it can keep opponents with better guards than Pepperdine's molasses-slow backcourt from slicing up its trademark man-to-man defense off the dribble. And secondly, the Bruins cannot beat the better teams on their schedule if they don't get more consistent production from Nelson and center Joshua Smith.

Nelson, who Howland said won't start "anytime soon" as a result of continuing attitude issues, was a non-factor on Monday, scoring two points and logging just 10 minutes as a result of early foul trouble. And the combination of fouls and fatigue limited the overweight Smith to four points and six rebounds in 12 minutes.

"They'll play better," Howland said. "I'm confident of that going forward. And obviously we need them to."

If UCLA can find a way to maintain this level of defensive intensity and get Nelson and Smith to produce in the paint, that might be the formula that helps the Bruins dig out of this hole and entice more fans to endure the traffic-clogged commute downtown. The several thousand that made the trip Monday night may have been skeptical early, but they gave the Bruins a standing ovation at the end of both halves.

The Bruins couldn't help but notice the meager turnout on Monday night, yet they were thankful for the ones who did support them rather than indignant that so few showed up.

"Those were true blue Bruin fans," Howland said. "1-4 hasn't happened here in a long time. An 8 p.m. game on a Monday night, it's a later game. I really appreciate all the fans that made it to the game in person today. We appreciate the support."