Five observations: UCLA 89, UC Irvine 60

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
11:30
PM PT
LOS ANGELES--UCLA's upward trend continued Tuesday night when the Bruins turned in another dominant performance and posted an 89-60 victory over UC Irvine at the Sports Arena.

It was the fourth consecutive victory for UCLA (6-5) which got above .500 for the first time this season and has outscored its last three opponents, 231-146, and is beginning to shake off a 1-4 start that featured embarrassing losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State.

Freshman guard Norman Powell had a breakout performance with a career-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Sophomore Tyler Lamb also continued to break out of his early-season slump and scored a career-best 17 points with three assists and a career-high four steals.

David Wear added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Bruins, who had five players score in double figures and shot a season-best 54.8 percent from the field. The Bruins have shot 53.7 percent over the last two games.

Five observations from the game:

1Dismissing Reeves Nelson has improved team chemistry

It seemed like a risky move for Ben Howland to dismiss an all-conference player from the team, but the Bruins are now 4-0 since Reeves Nelson last played and seems to be getting better and better each game they are further removed from the Nelson era.

They are playing as a more cohesive unit and seem to be enjoying themselves much more on the court.

"I think that’s the reason I removed Reeves," Howland said. "It has improved our chemistry and being positive. That’s the bottom line, I’m just being honest and telling truth."

Nelson was clearly an asset at times as he led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, but his poor attitude had poisoned the team early on this season and led to unproductive practices and games that simply were not fun to play.

"Our guys are really coming together," Howland said. "You can see that there is good chemistry with this team right now, Guys are really pulling for each other. That’s fun."

2Norman Powell began to deliver on his potential

Powell has sprinkled signs of his tremendous ability throughout the early season, but Tuesday night he finally put it all together. He made four of six three-point shots, had a couple of athletic dunks and an acrobatic reverse layup that made you take notice.

His 19-point, seven-rebound game followed an eight-point, 10-rebound game on Saturday and probably earned Powell more minutes going forward.

"Norman is getting better and better and that’s what we expected," Howland said. "With more opportunity he’s growing. He still makes freshman mistakes but he’s definitely improving and we need him. We need him to keep playing how he’s playing."

Powell credited his improved play to getting used to the college level and committing to defense.

"My game tonight was basically being aggressive on defense," he said. "Trying my best on defense. Coach always says your defense brings offense."

3Tyler Lamb is finally healthy

Lamb was one of the early-season disappointments for the Bruins as he tried to play through bursitis in his hip that was causing tremendous pain.

He had the hip drained of fluid and has been a different player ever since. His 17-point, four-steal game Tuesday came one game after he put up nine points, nine rebounds and seven assists against UC Davis and 14 points against Eastern Washington.

"I feel way more explosive," Lamb said. "I feel like I’m 100 percent right now and hopefully I can feel like that the rest of the season. I felt like I was playing 60 percent and to be able to feel like this and play like this, I’m very thankful."

It's helped him on the defensive end as well. Lamb is supposed to be the team;s defensive stopper this season, but he was a step slow early on and his man was routinely having big games. That's not the case any more.

"Tyler Lamb is really playing well for us right now," Howland said. "He’s had three games in a row he’s put together--at least three--where his stats don’t even indicate what he’s doing because he’s always guarding the other team’s best player."

4Three-point shooting is becoming a weapon

UC Irvine started out playing a zone defense and doubling down on the post, but the UCLA shooters thwarted that effort. UCLA made nine of 18 three-point shots and have made 26 of 62
(41.9 percent) during their four-game win streak.

"When we take good open three-pointers, I think we’re going to be a good three-point shooting team," Howland said.

Point guard Lazeric Jones, who had 11 points and six assists, said the key to the outside shooting is the big men being able to pass out of the double teams. Joshua Smith, Travis Wear and David Wear each had assists Tuesday night.

"When guys are doubling down on our bigs like that we’ve got to be able to knock down shots," Jones said. "Our bigs are good passers so when they get it out to us, we have to reward them."

5The Bruins aren't just winning, they're winning big

With an average margin of victory of 33 points over the last three games, UCLA is clearly playing at a high level, even if the level of competition has been a bit suspect.

Good teams put the beat down on teams that are rebuilding such as UC Irvine and UC Davis and that's exactly what UCLA has done, so perhaps the Bruins are finally starting to develop into a good team.

"You’ve got to win games to learn how to win games and I feel like we’re starting to learn how to win a little bit," Jones said. "I don’t think we’re there yet, but you can see some things are starting to happen."

Those early losses to LMU and Middle Tennessee were supposed to go this way, but when they turned into losses, the Bruins realized that things weren't going to be easy this season.

"No team likes losing and the way we were losing early this season against teams we thought we should beat, we got embarrassed," said Smith, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. "It feels good to kind of flip the script a little bit. It's a lot more fun and now e just have to keep this going."

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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