Trying to stay in sole possession of first place in the Pac-10, UCLA looks to move one step closer to its first conference title since 1996-97 when it travels to Berkeley face California on Thursday.
The 15th-ranked Bruins (22-6, 12-4) lead the Golden Bears (17-8, 11-5) by one game with two to play, meaning a victory by UCLA would end Cal’s hopes for its first Pac-10 crown in 46 years. If the Golden Bears win, however, they would own the tiebreaker, having swept the season series.
The Bears prevailed 68-61 in the team’s first meeting Dec. 31.
Also in the mix is Washington, which plays at Arizona State on Thursday. The Huskies are tied with Cal and hold the tiebreaker over UCLA after sweeping the season series.
If the Huskies end up tied with the Bears, the tiebreaker would be more complicated because the teams split this season, meaning the Pac-10 title wouldn’t be decided until other conference games are played this week.
All scenarios aside, UCLA leading scorer Arron Afflalo knows his team has to concentrate on playing Cal before looking too far ahead.
“That’s the focus now,” Afflalo said. “We’re the two teams atop the Pac-10 right now, so it’s definitely going to be a pivotal game for us. A few days of tough practices are really going to benefit us.”
The Bruins have benefited from fine shooting performances of late, helping them earn consecutive wins following back-to-back road losses to Washington on Feb. 11 and USC on Feb. 19, each by three points.
UCLA, which hasn’t lost three straight road games since dropping its final eight away from home in 2003-04, shot 56.3 percent from the field in a 78-60 win over Oregon State last Thursday and 53.2 percent in a 70-53 victory against Oregon on Sunday.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Afflalo also chipped in 14 to pace the Bruins against the Ducks.
Afflalo scored all of his points in the final 11 1/2 minutes as the Bruins erased a 28-23 halftime deficit, outscoring the Ducks 47-25 after the break.
“In the first half, I don’t think we were being as aggressive,” said UCLA point guard Jordan Farmar, who had 11 points, five rebounds and five assists. “But in the second half, we were more aggressive and got stops on defense, so they couldn’t set that up. We got a lot of stuff in transition, and that helped us a lot. It all starts with our defense and our intensity.”
UCLA completes its regular-season schedule at Stanford on Saturday.
Cal has lost two of its last three, but can assure itself of at least a share of the Pac-10 crown by winning its final two games.
The Bears, who wrap up the regular season at home against USC on Saturday, have finished in second place four times since they last won the Pac-10 title in 1960.
In a 73-62 loss to then-No. 17 Washington on Sunday, Richard Midgley had 15 points and Leon Powe added 14 and eight rebounds, but he sat out the final 5:34 of the first half with foul trouble.
Powe, averaging 19.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in 21 games, attempted just seven shots after he entered averaging 13.6 attempts per game.
Cal coach Ben Braun was unhappy with some of the offensive fouls called on his star player and refused to let Powe speak to the media after the game.
“We tried to get him some touches,” Braun said, “and it seemed like every time we got some touches to him, Leon was trying to be aggressive to the basket. He got about two or three calls against him, and those were tough calls and tough plays for us. Those were real momentum changes for them.”
Powe has averaged 11.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in three games against the Bruins in his career.
UCLA leads the series with Cal 122-93.