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UCLA is feeling a sense of urgency as season winds down

The Bruins are one game out of first place in the Pac-12 with six regular-season games remaining. Players know they are playing for a berth in the NCAA tournament as well as for Coach Ben Howland.

February 15, 2013|By Chris Foster, Los Angeles Times
  • Ben Howland's UCLA team is one game out of first in the Pac-12 Conference.
Ben Howland's UCLA team is one game out of first in the Pac-12 Conference. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Urgency was the word for the day. UCLA needs to play with it against Stanford on Saturday at Maples Pavilion, and beyond.

"This is a must-win game for us," freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad said.

They all are, with significance reaching several levels for the Bruins.

— UCLA is one game out of first in the Pac-12 Conference and is trying to win its fourth conference title under Coach Ben Howland.

— The NCAA tournament is on the horizon, and the Bruins (18-7 overall, 8-4 Pac-12) have six regular-season games remaining — four on the road — to make an impression on the selection committee.

— The final stretch is also a chance to put Howland on better footing.

"We're not only playing for our team, we're playing for him," Muhammad said. "I came here to learn defense from him."

A segment of UCLA fans are in the anti-Howland camp, with their spokesman being former Bruin and television analyst Bill Walton. The 76-63 loss to California on Thursday was another chance for Walton and other Howland critics to vent.

But where Howland stands with those who matter is unknown.

Associate Athletic Director Mark Harlan was there to give a pat on the back and a hug after the Bruins' last-second victory over Washington. No one from the administration showed up to greet Howland at the postgame news conference two nights later after UCLA rolled over Washington State.

Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said two weeks ago, "There were high expectations. Ben knows that, the coaches know that and the players know that. They have the same expectations. As the season has progressed, there have been ups and downs, but those expectations haven't wavered. We'll see how this plays out."

Muhammad said that the chatter about Howland's future hasn't been a concern in the locker room. But, he said, "I think the fans are [concerned]. You know how it is when you lose some games. We just have to turn it around. We're playing for our coach also; that's one thing we have to know."

Smothered

There were oh-so-many issues for the Bruins against Cal. Howland focused on the offense.

The Bruins shot 37% in the loss, the fourth time in the last five games that they have been under 40%.

"The defense was poor; that was again fueled by not performing well offensively," Howland said. "That goes hand in hand."

Howland said the Bruins rushed shots, the result of being a young team. Freshmen Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson were a combined 12 for 33 from the field. Muhammad was four for 13, as the Bears put extra pressure on him.

"I don't think he recognized that," Howland said. "Every time he got the ball, they ran another player at him. It's something he hasn't seen, not to that extent."

So do the Bruins need a few new wrinkles offensively? Cal Coach Mike Montgomery seemed to have a pretty simple game plan.

"They want to run; we didn't let them," Montgomery said. "They have good one-on-one players; we took that away."

No freebies

The Bruins shot only 12 free throws against Cal, none in the first half.

Howland said that was due to the Bruins' lack of "physicality."

Adams said, "We thought there were a few shots where we were fouled. We should have got free throws. But that's going to happen on the road."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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