UCLA's Joshua Smith dunks after getting past Arizona State's… (Christina House / For The…)
UCLA's defense was in a zone, and Ben Howland couldn't have been happier.
The coach who abhors zone defenses was thrilled when his Bruins went into lockdown mode with their trademark man-to-man scheme Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, overcoming a sluggish start to pull away for a 71-53 victory over Arizona State.
An array of steals, strips and blocks by UCLA over the final 91/2 minutes of the first half triggered a 30-8 run that transformed a 12-point deficit into a 10-point halftime lead.
"That's why Coach always preaches defense," UCLA sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "The points will come. Just get stops."
The Bruins extended their cushion to as many as 20 points in the second half on the way to their 20th victory, which pulled them to within one game of Pacific 10 Conference-leading Arizona.
The Wildcats, whose conference lead over UCLA (20-8, 11-4 Pac-10) was shaved in half with a 65-57 loss to USC, visit Pauley Pavilion on Saturday in the final game at the facility before it closes for interior renovations.
The Bruins matched their intensity on defense with poise on offense, committing only nine turnovers and getting double figures in scoring from five players. Junior guard Malcolm Lee scored 12 of his team-high 16 points in the first half.
Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson and junior guard Lazeric Jones each logged double-doubles for UCLA, Nelson getting 12 points and 12 rebounds and Jones going for 10 points and 10 assists. The Bruins shot 59.1% in the second half and 52% for the game after they made only two of their first 16 shots.
Freshman swingman Chanse Creekmur led Arizona State (10-17, 2-13) with nine points, the Bruins holding an opponent without a double-figure scorer for the first time this season. UCLA did it by going back exclusively to man-to-man defense one game after mixing in a zone for the first time all season.
Just as they had against California, the Bruins started slowly, out of sorts on offense and a step late on defense. Arizona State worked the ball inside for easy baskets, including a pair of lobs from Abbott that led to dunks by 7-footer Ruslan Pateev.
"They beat us back in transition a couple of times and we just started slow," Nelson said. "There's really no excuse for that. I'm glad we woke up and went on a really, really good run."
It started with UCLA's defense feeding its offense. A steal by Jones led to a breakaway dunk. A steal by Nelson resulted in a pair of Tyler Lamb free throws. A strip by Jerime Anderson produced an Anderson layup.
"We tightened it up," Howland said.
Honeycutt (13 points) also made a pair of three-pointers as the Bruins scored 14 consecutive points as part of their 30-8 run. Freshman center Joshua Smith (12 points) took a lob from Jones over the top of the defense for a dunk that gave the Bruins a 39-29 halftime lead.
Nelson clapped as he jogged off the court, his teammates following close behind with a bounce in their step after making 11 of their final 12 shots of the half. Arizona State, meanwhile, missed 12 of its last 15.