The mood around the UCLA basketball program was less than jubilant this week. As guard Darren Collison put it, "This team is sick to its stomach from losing."
Two defeats in three games can have that effect.
The Bruins, slipping down the national rankings to No. 17, might have resorted to gallons of Pepto-Bismol, but Thursday night they found something better.
Defensive pressure that generated 16 steals and forced 21 turnovers. Running the fastbreak off those miscues and attacking the rim in the half-court offense.
All of which added up to a big dose of relief by way of an 81-66 victory over California in a Pacific 10 Conference game at Pauley Pavilion.
"I don't have a lot to complain about tonight," Coach Ben Howland said. "I'm pretty happy."
To which Collison said: "That's hard to believe."
Best of all for the Bruins, conference front-runner Washington lost at Arizona, so they move back into a share of first place in the standings.
UCLA improved to 16-4, 6-2 in conference, by making good on a few promises.
All week long, Howland and his players had talked about spacing the floor on offense, forcing the ball inside more often rather than settling for long-range shots.
Facing a Cal team that has hardly excelled on defense this season, UCLA took control in the first half with a flurry of fastbreak layups by Collison and Josh Shipp. Center Alfred Aboya and freshman Drew Gordon added points inside.
The Bruins held a 31-23 halftime lead and limited Cal, the second-highest scoring team in the conference, to 10 points below its average.
The Golden Bears (16-5, 5-3) helped out by looking occasionally inept, mishandling the ball early and often.
"I thought a lot of those turnovers were our own lack of attention," Cal Coach Mike Montgomery said. "We exposed the ball. We got passive."
Thursday's performance came at a time -- roughly two-thirds of the way through the schedule -- when it seemed fair to ask if UCLA was as good as advertised. Fair to ask if the Bruins' lofty ranking in the preseason polls owed more to reputation -- and the potential of a highly touted freshman class -- than to reality.
When asked about it this week, several players dismissed the notion that other Pac-10 teams might be better.
"No, we're a very good team," swingman Michael Roll said. "We have a lot of talent."
Collison added: "This thing is far from over."
Washington's defeat proved that point. Arizona State, the other Pac-10 team to defeat UCLA this season, also lost Thursday night.
"It goes to show you that anything can happen in the Pac-10," freshman guard Jrue Holiday said. "This really boosts our confidence."
UCLA wasn't about to let the opportunity slip away, starting the second half with a 20-7 run. Again, most of the big points were scored from close range.
Aboya worked his way inside, scoring and drawing a foul. Holiday threw a nifty alley-oop pass to Shipp, then found James Keefe under the basket for another two points.
"He sees the floor so well and has a great feel for the game," Howland said.
Even the outside shots seemed to fit into a more coherent offensive plan, Nikola Dragovic's making a jumper after Collison drove the lane and kicked out.
The game was all but over with 12 minutes left, the Bruins on their way to scoring 38 points in the paint and, just as important, getting to the free-throw line, where they made 21 of 23 attempts.
Collison had a team-high 18 points with Holiday and Shipp scoring 13 and 11 points, respectively. Theo Robertson led Cal with 19 points.
The question is, can UCLA play this way in rematches against Arizona State's zone defense and Washington's quick backcourt?
Said Howland: "Let's hope."