Nelson had a career-high 24 points including the game-winning tip-in with 2.2 seconds remaining on Thursday night as the Bruins thwarted a furious late rally from Cal and emerged with a badly needed 86-84 victory.
"I didn't really look at it as an opportunity for redemption," Nelson told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not perfect and everybody has an off game, so I was going to come out and do what I normally do, and it worked out for me."
The final bucket came after UCLA had squandered leads of 15 points midway through the second half and eight points with less than a minute remaining. Cal freshman guard Allen Crabbe sparked the late charge, scoring 13 of his 17 points after UCLA's Malcolm Lee fouled out with 3:20 to go, including a game-tying 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the game.
That paved the way for Nelson to extend UCLA's winning streak to three and give the Bruins some separation on the crowded middle of the Pac-10 standings. Nelson met no resistance as he sprinted down the lane from beyond the 3-point arc and tipped Tyler Honeycutt's errant turnaround jumper off the glass and in.
Part of the reason Cal was able to rally was an injury that mammoth center Joshua Smith sustained when he hit his head on the floor trying to draw a first-half charge. Smith sat out the final 29 minutes of the game, leaving a huge void in the middle of the UCLA defense.
What made the hustle play from Nelson even more significant for UCLA is that it was he who made it. The sophomore forward has drawn criticism from Bruins fans for taking plays off and not competing hard enough, so it was important that his extra effort resulted in a game-saving bucket.
"I'm really excited that Reeves is the one that tipped that in," UCLA coach Ben Howland told reporters after the game. "For him to get that tip, to not give up, to not quit, to run the floor and get that play, that was exciting."