UCLA routed its last three opponents to move into first place in the Pac-10.
Now, taking a break from conference play, the No. 15 Bruins will see how they match up against a team from the competitive Big East on Saturday when they face a Notre Dame squad looking to end a six-game losing streak.
UCLA (18-4) hasn’t received much of a challenge against its own conference recently, winning its last three games by an average of 21.7 points. It’s coming off a 76-60 win over Southern California on Wednesday in which it led 44-21 at the half.
The Bruins improved to 12-1 at home, with the only loss coming in overtime to then-No. 16 Arizona State on Jan. 17. UCLA is holding opponents to an average of 59.1 points at Pauley Pavilion, where it has played its last three games.
“If we can keep playing like this the rest of the way we’re going to win a lot of games,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
The opposite is true of Notre Dame (12-9), which was ranked as high as No. 7 at the outset of Big East play.
The Irish, though, have lost six in a row during a brutal stretch in their schedule, with the first five losses coming against Top 25 opponents - four in the Top 10. Their first unranked opponent in more than three weeks came on Wednesday, losing 93-83 to a Cincinnati team which had been 4-5 in Big East play.
Notre Dame hasn’t lost seven straight since dropping the final seven games of the 1992-93 season.
“They’re going to be feeling the weight of having six losses in a row in the best conference in the country,” Howland said. “We know Notre Dame is very capable of coming in here and winning unless we give our very best effort.”
His team hopes to take advantage of a struggling Notre Dame defense, which has given up 93 points in back-to-back games and has allowed an average of 84.3 during the losing streak. The Irish gave up 67.5 points per game during their 12-3 start.
“We’ve got to be able to play defense, get rebounds and stop teams from putting up 90 on us,” Irish forward Zach Hillesland said.
UCLA’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed 70 points just twice all season. The Bruins have forced an average of 21.0 turnovers in the last three games, including 23 that led to 28 points versus USC on Wednesday.
“It really feels good,” Bruins freshman Jrue Holiday said. “Stopping them on the defensive end, that’s our bread and butter.”
Josh Shipp scored 19 points, going 11-of-12 at the free-throw line, while Alfred Aboya added 14 points and 12 rebounds. Their effort combined with the Bruins’ work on defense helped make up for leading scorer Darren Collison being held to four points in 27 minutes.
Collison, who averages 14.1 points and 31.1 minutes per game, hasn’t had to work too hard with the Bruins cruising to easy wins recently. He hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in UCLA’s last three games.
Notre Dame leading scorer Luke Harangody has been terrific lately, posting 11 straight double-doubles, but it hasn’t mattered much because of the Irish’s abysmal defense. Harangody, the nation’s fourth-leading scorer with 25.3 points per game, has averaged 26.8 points and 14.3 rebounds during the losing streak.
This is the first time the junior will be facing UCLA, which has a 27-19 lead in this all-time series. This is the first meeting between these teams at Pauley Pavilion since the Irish’s 75-60 win on Feb. 28, 2004, though they met a year later in South Bend and the Bruins won 75-65.