Having won the Pac-10 regular season title the last three years, UCLA is counting on its experience to guide it during the final stretch of games.
California's players do not have that luxury, but the Bears do have a coach who can help them respond to the pressure.The No. 22 Bruins visit California on Saturday, with the winner staying in the thick of the conference race.UCLA and Cal -- both 21-7 overall and 10-5 in the Pac-10 -- are in a three-way tie with No. 14 Arizona State for second place, 1 1/2 games behind 21st-ranked Washington. The Bruins were alone atop the conference three weeks ago, but a normally reliable defense has struggled as they've lost three of their last five games."The parity is so great in this league, I think we have to be at our optimum in order to succeed," coach Ben Howland said following their 76-71 win over Stanford on Thursday.After allowing opponents to average 79 points and shoot 54 percent in the previous four games, UCLA trailed by 14 early Thursday before rallying in the second half. The Bruins held off Stanford despite connecting on just one field goal in the final 4 1/2 minutes."We understand now that defense is our bread and butter," said Alfred Aboya, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, including four free throws in the final 14 seconds. "If we get stops, then we'll have a chance to win."Josh Shipp scored 24 points -- his most in a month -- while leading scorer Darren Collison was held to seven on 3-of-9 shooting. He had averaged 21 in the previous three games.Shipp, who has started every game on UCLA's last two Pac-10 championship teams, said he and fellow seniors Aboya and Collison need to step up."We know how important these games are as seniors," said Shipp, who averages 13.5 points. "We're just doing whatever it takes to win."For Cal, being in contention this late in the season is unfamiliar territory for most of its members. The Golden Bears finished 6-12 in the Pac-10 the last two seasons and only two starters were on the 2005-06 team that went 12-6 en route to their most recent NCAA tournament appearance.But under first-year coach Mike Montgomery, who won four Pac-10 titles while coaching Stanford, Cal has been surging of late. The Bears have won five of their last six, including an 81-78 overtime victory over Southern California on Thursday.The Golden Bears blew a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes of regulation, but Patrick Christopher scored eight of his career-high 29 points in overtime. Leading scorer Jerome Randle, who was held to a season-low three points in a loss to Oregon State five days earlier, added 15 and eight assists.It was the second straight game the Golden Bears blew a double-digit second-half lead. They led Oregon State by 12 before losing 65-54."It's kind of a new experience for these guys, being in a position where a game means that much, and we'll work our way through that," Montgomery said.Cal is 16-1 at home and won both its home games against Top 25 opponents, beating then-No. 17 Arizona State on Jan. 4 and then-No. 22 Washington on Feb. 5.UCLA has won four straight and eight of nine against Cal, including an 81-66 win at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 29. The Bruins have won four in a row at Haas Pavilion, holding the Bears to an average of 56 points in that span.