TUCSON, Arizona — After each of its many explosive offensive performances during the preseason and throughout much of Pac-12 Conference play there was plenty of praise for how easily UCLA could score. But because the Bruins' opponents so often were able to do so just as easily, it was hard to buy them as a legitimate national title contender.
The whole "defense wins championships" thing and all.
But since losing consecutive games in late January in which it allowed a combined 180 points, UCLA has become a completely different team without the ball. While still not a lockdown defensive unit, the Bruins' effort on that end is much greater than earlier this season, leading to a seven-game win streak highlighted by victories over all three Pac-12 teams they'd fallen to. That included Saturday's 77-72 victory at fourth-ranked Arizona, their first in Tucson in more than four years.
"People have been killing us on our defense all year," senior guard Bryce Alford said. "We've been learning from our mistakes."
Defensive praise normally wouldn't come after allowing 51 percent shooting, which was actually its second-worst effort of the season. Arizona shot 50 percent when it blitzed No. 5 UCLA (26-3, 13-3 Pac-12) to the tune of 96 points a month ago, which rival USC followed by lighting up the Bruins for 14 three-pointers.
So what changed? A team meeting following the USC loss led to a better understanding of what was working and what wasn't, with much of the focus on defense.
"We were kind of tired of trading baskets," freshman forward TJ Leaf said.
Normally fixing to push the pedal on offense and conserve energy on defense, UCLA has learned it's OK to slow the tempo. Saturday's game had 66 possessions, just the fifth time this season UCLA has been in a sub-70 possession game but the third time during its win streak.
The answer has come in the form of a 2-3 zone, something the Bruins have become more inclined to play of late. Going zone has enabled UCLA to make opponents work for its points without exhausting itself in the process and risk messing with an offense that entered the weekend tops in the nation in shooting (53.1 percent) and scoring (92.1 points per game).
UCLA's zone forced Arizona (26-4, 15-2) to drain the shot clock and settle for perimeter shots, as it held the Wildcats to 5-of-18 on three-pointers, including 2-of-10 in the second half when they managed just 29 points.
"We got in a pretty good rhythm in our zone in the second half," UCLA head coach Steve Alford said. "I think we're playing our best basketball right now."
Helping halt the pace was the Bruins' work on the offensive glass. A 35-28 rebounding edge was due to their 14 offensive rebounds, one off the season high set Thursday at Arizona State, leading to a 20-4 advantage in second-chance points while also reducing the number of chances Arizona had to score.
Junior big man Thomas Welsh, who had 14 points and eight rebounds, including four offensive boards, had one of UCLA's three offensive rebounds on a critical second-half possession that lasted 73 seconds. After Arizona pulled to 73-65 with 3:56 left, the Bruins missed three shots but managed to grab those misses before the Wildcats got a hold of a fourth miss with 2:43 to go.
Beating Arizona completed UCLA's revenge tour that started with a comeback win over Oregon on Feb. 9 and continued Feb. 18 with a 102-70 thumping of USC to end a four-game skid to the Trojans. That means the Bruins will head into the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas next month with at least one win over every team in the league.
"That doesn't happen a lot in sports, especially college basketball, to be able to avenge each of your losses," Steve Alford said.
UCLA still allows nearly 76 points per game, and a dozen opponents have averaged more than a point per possession, so it's still a long ways from having its defense considered an asset. For now, the Bruins are fine with that facet not being a major liability. And with their ability to shoot and score, their postseason ceiling is looking much higher than a month ago.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.