UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones (11) and forward Tyler Honeycutt (left)… (Ben Margot / Associated…)
And in the 27th game, they played zone.
The 2-3 zone defense that UCLA unveiled against California on Sunday was startling, even for several Bruins.
UCLA had played strictly man-to-man defense for the season's first three months, so players had no idea a change was in store until Coach Ben Howland told them to switch defenses early in the second half of an eventual 76-72 overtime loss.
"It caught me by surprise, to tell you the truth," freshman center Joshua Smith said after the game. "I remember going in the huddle and [Howland] said we were going to run zone and I was kind of like, oh, OK."
Howland is a staunch opponent of zone defenses, using them only as a last resort. He went to one in Pacific 10 Conference play last season because he didn't think the Bruins had the athleticism to execute his preferred brand of grinding man-to-man defense.
But UCLA hasn't even practiced zone defense this season, except to prepare for teams they expected to play one against them.
Howland used the zone Sunday in an attempt to keep Smith and sophomore forward Reeves Nelson in the game after the big men had each picked up their third foul in the opening minutes of the second half. Nelson didn't pick up another foul the rest of the game; Smith fouled out with 1 minute 19 seconds left in overtime.
The zone proved beneficial in other ways, helping UCLA rally from what had been a 13-point deficit early in the second half.
"The zone stopped the bleeding a lot," Bruins junior guard Malcolm Lee said. "Although they were scoring on the zone, it was more like one out of three times every time down the court as opposed to scoring every time against the man. So the zone is the reason why we got back in the game."
Sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt lamented that the Bruins had not used a zone earlier in the season because he said it capitalizes on several strengths.
"I felt we should play zone against a couple of teams because we're long enough and athletic enough to do that," Honeycutt said. "Showing teams different looks is always going to confuse them."
After acknowledging the zone's effectiveness against the Golden Bears, Howland was asked whether he would take a longer look at using it in future games.
"No," he said.
Lee said the zone is an option the Bruins should consider.
"It's possible that sometimes if our man is not there, we have the ability to go zone," Lee said. "It's up to Coach. Coach doesn't really like playing zone, but if it works, why not?"
No stopping him
UCLA didn't have any answer defensively for Cal's Jorge Gutierrez.
The Golden Bears repeatedly set screens for the scrappy guard, who drove directly at UCLA's big men and either converted layups or drew fouls on the way to a career-high 34 points.
Howland tried to adjust by having Lee, his defensive stopper, guard Gutierrez late in the game. But Gutierrez continued to score, getting nine points in overtime.
"It didn't matter who was guarding him," Howland said. "What they were doing was screening for him, and he was coming up against our fours and fives and just turning the corner and driving them every time."
UCLA's loss to the Golden Bears takes some luster off the Bruins' matchup against conference-leading Arizona on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA (19-8 overall, 10-4 Pac-10) is two games behind the Wildcats (23-4, 12-2) in the conference standings and will need help from other Pac-10 teams to catch Arizona before the regular season ends in two weeks. "We have to recover and win every game from here on out and hope Arizona loses a couple," Honeycutt said.… Sophomore forward Brendan Lane had 23 blocks in UCLA's first 12 games but had none in Pac-10 play before swatting a shot by Cal's Harper Kamp in the first half.