- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Different day, same story for the UCLA basketball team.
The Bruins nearly let another big lead slip away in the waning moments, but held off a late-game surge by Stanford and defeated the Cardinal, 69-65, in a Pac-10 game Thursday night at Maples Pavilion.
UCLA led, 57-41 with 7:26 left to play and still had a 10-point lead at 66-56 with 1:47 left, but couldn't contain Stanford's sharp-shooting guard Jeremy Green, who made three three-pointers in the final 1:27, and things got scary as the Cardinal pulled to within 66-62, with 1:12 to play.
An intentional foul put Reeves Nelson at the foul line with 22 seconds to play and he made both shots to help seal the victory and push UCLA (19-7, 10-3) into double digits in conference victories.
"They made a bunch of threes down the stretch to make this thing interesting and not good for my health," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "But needless to say I’m excited about the win."
UCLA remains in second place in the Pac-10 race, a game behind Arizona. Stanford dropped to 13-12, 6-8.
Five observations from the game:
1There was no chance for that 16-point lead to hold up
Get used to it, Bruins fans, this team just isn't going to win without making things interesting.
The Bruins continually let teams back in games after opening up big leads, but somehow seem to pull out the victories. UCLA improved to 18-0 this season in games in which it has held a lead of 10 points or more. Never mind that they have won only eight of those games by 10 points or more.
Nearly blowing leads of 15 points or more is no longer a disturbing trend; It's an expected one. And it's become so commonplace for UCLA that the normally stoic Howland even joked about it Thursday.
"I know we’re great for television," Howland said. "This is a great team for TV ratings. And keeping the fans involved for the sponsors all the way till the very end. So I think we should get some accommodation for that."
2Reeves Nelson put the team on his back in the second half
Nelson had a rather pedestrian first half with six points and two rebounds but came out on a mission in the second half. He drove the baseline for a basket on UCLA's first possession to set the tone and clinched the game by making six of eight free throws in the final 2:26.
He finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, but his 8-for-10 free-throw shooting was key, especially when he drew an intentional foul with 22 seconds to play and the Bruins clinging to a 66-62 lead. Nelson made both free throws, the Bruins got the ball back and he got fouled again and made one of two. UCLA had a 69-62 lead with 11 seconds to go.
"I was just trying to do everything in my power to help the team win,” Nelson said. “It’s always tough to win on the road, and I was fortunate enough for things to go my way and help the team win."
3The Bruins displayed their lethal balanced attack
Early in the game, Tyler Honeycutt led a Bruins outside attack. He made a pair of three-pointers and another long shot with his foot on the three-point line in the first three minutes of the game. Lazeric Jones also had a three-pointer in that stretch as the Bruins went 6-for-11 from beyond the arc in the first half.
After intermission, the Bruins summoned their inside muscle. Nelson and center Joshua Smith took UCLA's first seven shots in the second half. Nelson led the team with 18 points, Honeycutt had 16 and Smith finished with 13.
"That’s the key for us," Howland said. "When we’ve been good here in my tenure, we’ve had great balance. Four or five guys in double figures night in and night out. We’re averaging five guys now and that’s important because you can’t load up on one guy."
For Honeycutt, who made five of 12 shots and four of eight three-point attempts, it was his best offensive game in a month.
"I knew I needed to be more aggressive," Honeycutt said. "I'm not going to shoot myself out of the game or shoot to where it's hurting us, but I'm going to stay aggressive and if I'm having a good night, continue to look to shoot."
4Jeremy Green was too good to contain forever
Green, Stanford's leading scorer, had been averaging 23 points over his last four games, so when he had only six points at halftime, it seemed as though Bruins defensive stopper Malcolm Lee would once again get the better of him.
But Green, who went four for 15 for 12 points against UCLA last month, got hot in the second half and single-handedly kept Stanford close. He had 21 points in the second half, 16 in the final 7:11, and made three three-pointers in the final 1:27 as Stanford put a scare into UCLA.
"He might be one of the most underrated players in the country," Howland said. "He is a really, really good player. That jump shot of his is lethal. I think he’ll be an NBA player."
But UCLA, a young team when the season began, showed poise and maturity during Stanford's Green-led run and didn't panic.
"Bad teams will let runs affect them," Smith said. "We already knew this was going to be a game of runs. They made their run, and we had to just had to make our moves."
5UCLA's confidence is growing by the game
UCLA is no longer the raw, uncertain team it was the first half of this season. The Bruins were 3-4 and going nowhere fast after a loss to Montana on Dec. 5, and dropped two of their first three games in Pac-10 play but have now won six consecutive games and 10 of their last 11.
The team with no seniors, a junior college transfer at point guard, two sophomore starters at forward and a freshman center, has simply grown up over the course of the season. The talent has always been there, but now the team has begun to harness it.
"It’s the mindset," Nelson said. "At that point in the season, we were kind of struggling, trying to find our identity. Now we know what we are, what we can do, and we try to execute as best we can."
And the team is now one victory shy of returning to the 20-victory plateau and is in the hunt for a conference title with only five conference games left.
"We've grown up a lot," Smith said. "We have no seniors, only three juniors on the team, and every game we're learning more about ourselves."
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