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UCLA 75 COLORADO STATE 63

Nikola Dragovic comes to Bruins' rescue

Forward finds a hot hand to lead a big rally in the second half and finishes with a game-high 17 points.

December 23, 2009|By David Wharton
  • Nikola Dragovic is surrounded by Colorado's Travis Bush, left, and Greg Smith during the Bruins' 75-63 victory Tuesday night. Dragovic finished with a team-high 17 points.
Nikola Dragovic is surrounded by Colorado's Travis Bush, left, and… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Another day in court still awaits Nikola Dragovic, about a month or so down the line.

The UCLA forward still must answer to a felony charge stemming from a recent fight at a Hollywood concert.

But the mere act of standing in front of a judge this week, pleading not guilty, seems to have done wonders for Dragovic on another type of court.

"Just by not having to deal with lawyers, not going to meetings, just even think about it, I'm able to put more time into basketball," Dragovic said.

On Tuesday night, that translated into a scoring outburst in the second half for the long-slumping senior, a flurry of points that helped the Bruins to a 75-63 victory over Colorado State at Pauley Pavilion.

The win was equally meaningful for his coach and teammates, sending them home for the holidays with smiles on their faces.

"It would have been a really, really miserable Christmas coming off a loss," Coach Ben Howland said.

This game was supposed to come gift-wrapped, Colorado State (8-4) offered up as a badly needed victory after a tough loss at Notre Dame over the weekend.

It turned out to be a much bumpier road for UCLA (4-7), requiring Dragovic's contribution and a comeback, because of some persistent struggles.

The Bruins committed too many turnovers. At the defensive end of the court, they left too many shooters open.

The game started out well enough, with guard Malcolm Lee continuing his hot streak, scoring on a three-point basket and a drive, to give his team the lead.

Reeves Nelson also looked good, on his way to 15 points and six rebounds.

But then the Bruins stalled.

Guard Jerime Anderson jumped into the air with nowhere to pass, letting the ball drift away for a turnover. Wide-open Bruins looked hesitant, passing up shots.

Colorado State responded with an 8-3 run and the score was tied, 34-34, at halftime, scattered boos drizzling down from the crowd of 6,755.

Inconsistency has worried Howland, especially with the start of the conference schedule barely a week away.

"We have to improve," he said. "It's going to be a whole new season when you get to Pac-10 play."

The coach could not have been happy with what he saw in the opening minutes of the second half.

Colorado State looked to be a team on the rise, relying less and less on perimeter shots, pushing inside and drawing fouls to open a lead that held up through much of the second half.

Then Dragovic caught fire, finding the best way to break a drought that had him shooting 27% this season. Forcing his way into the lane, he scored from short range and got two more points on free throws.

Just that quickly, he found a rhythm and was on his way to a game-high 17 points.

"I just had a shorter man on me," he said. "I told Jerime to look inside and he did."

At the same time, the Bruins were slowing down and cutting down on the turnovers while turning the defense up a notch or two.

The Rams' top scorers -- center Andy Ogide finished with 14 points and forward Travis Franklin with 13 -- no longer found open shots or wide lanes to the basket.

"We just got out-toughed the last eight to nine minutes," Coach Tim Miles said. "We didn't get the right type of stops. I think when we look at the film, our guys will realize that trying is not good enough."

It all added up to a 27-9 run for UCLA in the final nine minutes or so, turning all those boos into cheers, a nail-biter transformed into a victory going away.

Consider it an early Christmas at Pauley Pavilion, the best kind of present for a team on the ropes.

For Dragovic, it was welcome respite from any thoughts about his next day in court, a hearing Feb. 1 to set a date for his preliminary hearing.

"It means a lot," he said.

For a player with much on his mind recently, it meant something to smile about.

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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