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February 19, 2009
After claiming the last three Pac-10 regular-season titles, UCLA likely needs to win Thursday night if it plans to capture four straight.
That's because No. 22 Washington is alone in first place entering its showdown at Pauley Pavilion, where the Huskies have won once in their last 22 visits - a trend they hope to buck while sending the 20th-ranked Bruins to their worst losing streak in more than four years.
Coming off three consecutive Final Four appearances, UCLA opened the season ranked No. 4, but the Bruins (19-6, 8-4) have lost all three of their games against ranked teams and have struggled with consistency in Pac-10 play.
Both problems continued during last week's trip to Arizona, where they lost back-to-back games to then-No. 18 Arizona State and Arizona, including Saturday's 84-72 defeat to the Wildcats.
UCLA hasn't lost three in a row since January 2005, but that's certainly a possibility considering it faces a Huskies team which has taken control of the conference with a three-game winning streak.
Despite being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10 preseason poll, Washington (19-6, 10-3) is on track for its first regular-season league title in 24 years behind a quartet of players averaging double figures in points.
Isaiah Thomas, Justin Dentmon, Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter each scored at least 20 in the Huskies' 103-84 win over Oregon on Saturday. Brockman added 18 rebounds for his 54th career double-double - the most of any active player nationally.
Washington has won 17 of 20 overall, including an 86-75 victory over then-No. 13 UCLA on Jan. 24 behind Thomas' 24 points.
"The more we win, the more we play the better teams, the more the respect will come," said Thomas, a freshman who leads the team with 16.5 points per game.
Coach Lorenzo Romar's club has a one-game lead on second-place Arizona State and is 1 1/2 games ahead of UCLA and California with five Pac-10 contests remaining, including Saturday's visit to Southern California as well as home games next week against the Sun Devils and Wildcats.
"The next three weeks are probably tougher than any three weeks we've had," Romar said.
But the toughest remaining test is likely Thursday's game. While the Huskies have won six of their last eight overall versus UCLA, they're 1-21 at Pauley Pavilion dating back to the 1986-87 season, with the lone win a 69-65 victory on Jan. 14, 2006.
UCLA also will be eager for a victory after its first back-to-back losses of the season, which caused the team to drop nine spots in the rankings.
The Bruins defense faltered on the trip, allowing the two opponents to shoot a combined 54.3 percent from the field - more than 10 percent above UCLA's season average. On Saturday, Arizona scored 49 points in the first half to open an 18-point lead.
"It was one of those days where everybody is not on the same page," Bruins senior guard Darren Collison said.
Collison had 26 points and classmate Josh Shipp added 18, but freshman guard Jrue Holiday was held to six as his erratic play continued. Holiday has totaled 14 points over the last three games after averaging 13.7 in his previous three.
Senior center Alfred Aboya, the Bruins' leader with 5.6 rebounds per game, has missed practice this week while dealing with flu-like symptoms but is probable for Thursday's game. UCLA will likely need him against Brockman, who ranks in the top 10 nationally with 11.1 rebounds per game.
Washington averages 41.3 rebounds to rank among the national leaders. UCLA's 28.8 average in conference play is second-worst in the Pac-10.