UCLA Coach Ben Howland talks to his team during a game against Oregon on Jan.… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
UCLA Coach Ben Howland called it a "good problem to have." And since it has not cost the Bruins a game, who's to argue?
Still, through UCLA's first five Pac-12 games — all victories — second-half leads have whittled away.
The No. 24 Bruins (15-3 overall, 5-0 in conference play) have weathered those lulls and are in first place, a half-game ahead of Washington and Oregon. But they are taking a step up in class, starting Saturday when they face No. 21 Oregon (15-2, 4-0).
"We got to keep our foot on the opponents' neck and make sure we don't let them back in the game," junior forward Travis Wear said.
The next three teams the Bruins face — Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State — are a combined 44-6 overall and 10-2 in the Pac-12 this season. Howland will only acknowledge Oregon, which he said "is a very important game for us." But facing No. 7 Arizona and Arizona State next week looms as a linchpin trip.
The Pac-12 teams UCLA has beaten thus far are a combined 4-18 in conference play. Still, the Bruins have seen second-half leads wither.
— California cut a 16-point lead to five. UCLA won, 79-65.
— Stanford cut a 15-point lead to five. UCLA won, 68-60.
— Utah cut a 12-point lead to two. UCLA won, 57-53.
— Colorado cut a 13-point lead to one. UCLA won, 78-75.
— Oregon State cut a 20-point lead to 10. UCLA won, 74-64.
Asked after the Oregon State game what the Bruins had to do better in coming games, Howland had "sustain intensity" third on the list, after more rebounds and fewer turnovers.
On Friday, Howland amended his assessment.
"Hey, listen, you guys wanted me to complain about something, so I'm trying to find something to complain about here," Howland said. "Just speaking to what is my wish list, I'd love to have leads and not relinquish them. But that's not really realistic in the game of basketball in this day and age."
Still, this could become a damaging habit. Oregon rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat the Bruins, 75-68, in their only meeting last season.
The Bruins were never threatened in the second half by Oregon State. But they did see a 20-point lead chopped to 10 in a five-minute span.
"Usually, when you get up like that and you start to slack off, the first thing to go is defense," Wear said.
The solution, Wear said, is "clock management and shot selection. We want to keep pushing the ball. We want to keep getting quick and easy shots. But if that comes at the cost of losing the lead, we got to think a little smarter and lock down on defense."
Rebounding, though, remains on Howland's mind.
The Ducks are second among Pac-12 teams in rebound margin. Arizona, the Bruins' next opponent, leads the conference. UCLA ranks ninth.
"One thing I've always believed is rebound margin is such a huge factor in being a really good team," Howland said.
The leads, Howland said, will take care of themselves.
"It's just a process, and it is a good problem to have," Howland said. "It means we've had leads of 15 points."
The rough season that freshman center Tony Parker has endured had a little bright spot Thursday.
Parker, who has battled back and ankle injuries, had four points and two blocked shots during a three-minute stretch in the first half. He also forced a turnover and beat everyone up court for a layup.
"I thought he did a great job when he was in there," Howland said. "He did a great job scoring on that one long pass. He had a couple good blocks. He played extremely hard. He's getting better. Tony is improving. He is going to be a real force for us."
Guard Norman Powell was suffering from a severe headache Thursday and missed a portion of the pregame warmup.
Powell still logged 20 minutes, scoring five points.
"He was able to play and did a terrific job," Howland said after the game.
On Friday, Howland said that Powell was "Good. Better. Thank Goodness."