ANAHEIM -- Apparently all it takes to wake up Joshua Smith is a game against Arizona State.
Smith broke out of an early-season slumber against the Sun Devils, scoring a season-high-tying 18 points with three powerful dunks and led the Bruins to a 75-58 victory Saturday night at the Honda Center.
Last year, Smith had a monstrous two-handed jam -- one of his most aggressive moves of the season to that point -- against Arizona State and it propelled him to a strong second half. Saturday, he displayed the same type of aggressiveness after playing passively for most of the season so far and finally displayed the type of skill that had him pegged as one of the top centers in the country going into this season.
"It was funny, Jerime [Anderson] and Coach [Ben Howland] reminded me in the walkthrough saying 'Josh, last year this was a turning point with the dunk at ASU,' " Smith said. "The guys were like 'You got to get at least one of them' and I was like, 'All right.' "
With the victory, UCLA (9-7, 2-2) evened its conference record and got back into the thick of what seems early on will be a wide-open Pac-12 race. It also improved UCLA's record to 4-0 at the Honda Center as the Bruins wrapped up the Orange County portion of their schedule, which included Thursday's Wooden Classic.
"It was great playing down here," Howland said. "We really loved playing down here. We loved the fan support, it’s a great venue. It was great to have it in Coach's name on Thursday."
Five observations from the game:
1Joshua Smith looked like a different player
Smith took the ball to the basket aggressively, showed some signs of quickness and energy was able to finish around the basket -- something he has struggled to do most of this season. He was a dominant force inside, especially on the offensive end, and not just a big body clogging up space.
"Josh had his best game of the year," Howland said. "He was very aggressive and when he was going to score he was going to dunk it and not just lay it in. He was aggressive and it was fun to watch."
Smith sat out Thursday against Arizona and was questionable to play Saturday because of a concussion, but was cleared to play Saturday morning after returning to UCLA to take a computerized test that is part of the UCLA concussion protocol. He did not start the game, but took over once he got in.
"I’m just trying to be aggressive," Smith said. "I really wanted to play that Arizona game, so I felt like I owed my team one."
2The Bruins dominated the paint and the glass
Led by Smith, UCLA had 46 points in the paint and out-rebounded Arizona State, 31-23. David Wear had eight points and nine rebounds and Travis Wear had 16 points and seven rebounds. Travis Wear was especially efficient on the offensive glass, getting five offensive rebounds and scoring 10 second-chance points.
"I try to be consistent in my effort on the offensive glass because if you are there most of the game you’re going to have a couple of them bounce to you if you are in a good position and you can get a couple of easy buckets that way," Travis Wear said. "Especially against a zone, you can sneak in there sometimes and not get boxed out."
Howland said it was part of the strategy to crash the offensive glass against Arizona State, which was playing without three suspended players and had only six scholarship players suited up.
"We really made an effort to try to get second shots because being short-handed the way they were they weren’t looking to push the ball at all," Howland said. "So we felt like we could rebound real aggressively and not get hurt in transition defense."
3UCLA's defense helped the Bruins climb out of an early hole
Ten minutes into the game, Arizona State held a 24-14 lead and UCLA's defense looked suspect as the Sun Devils made nine of their first 11 shots, but UCLA stuck with its man-to-man defense most of the game and tightened up.
Arizona State was 11 for 30 for the rest of the game and went through a stretch of 5 minutes 22 seconds without scoring a point in the second half.
"I thought our defense in the second half really keyed our ability to break the game open," Howland said.
The Bruins also tried to exploit Arizona State's short-handed squad by implementing a full-court press about five minutes into the second half. Senior guard Jerime Anderson suggested it and UCLA used it for two possessions, creating a steal just seconds after breaking out a full-court press that Howland teams rarely utilize.
Howland was particularly pleased that his team is showing improvement with the man-to-man defense, especially after the early lapse Saturday night.
"We’re still going to mix in some zone, but we have to be a team that relies on our man defense," Howland said. "I thought both games this weekend the key junctures of the game were because of our man defense."
4Lazeric Jones played off guard, but looked like a point guard
Jones moved to shooting guard this week because his style of play seemed better suited to that position, but Saturday he looked more like the point guard he was supposed to be with a season-high 10 assists.
Because of Arizona State's zone defense, UCLA worked the ball around the perimeter and it often ended up in the hands of Jones when a post player got some space inside. He routinely fed Smith and the Wear twins and effectively picked apart the Arizona State zone defense.
"When it’s a zone, it’s not like you’re at the wing," Jones said. "A lot of my passes came from the top, so I was just trying to break it down."
Jones and Anderson, who is now playing the point, combined for 15 points, 14 assists and six steals with only one turnover, complimenting the solid front court play.
5The Bruins didn't panic when they got down early
The Bruins were caught somewhat off guard by Arizona State's strong start, but stayed calm and slowly chipped away at the Sun Devils and turned a 24-14 deficit with 10 minutes left in the first half into a 33-30 lead by halftime.
They extended it to 69-43 with less than five minutes to play and cleared the bench with about two minutes left in the game.
"They had us down 10 and we did a good job showing composure because it’s not easy," Howland said. "When you’re down 10 to them, it’s like being down 20 because they play so patient offensively and they’re hard to score on. We did a much better job in the second half figuring out the zone."
Travis Wear said the team just needed to settle down and adjust to the zone.
"We came out and started playing more physical and attacking and forcing them into worse shots than they were taking in the beginning," he said.