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February 12, 2014

UCLA's Powell driven to defend first, dunk later

Norman Powell is coming off the biggest game of his junior season, and UCLA hopes he has enough left in the tank to deliver another big performance against Colorado on Thursday.

Unleashing on USC in the second half of the Bruins' crosstown showdown with the Trojans on Saturday, Powell exploded for a season-high 21 points on 8-for-13 from the field, including two authoritative dunks that rocked the Galen Center.

The Bruins won the game convincingly, sweeping their rival in the regular-season series. Although Powell makes the highlight reel intermittently with his high-flying slams, he's generally overlooked on a team that features Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Zach LaVine.

However, a pattern is emerging in conference play: As Powell goes, so do the Bruins.

In all but one of UCLA's conference wins, Powell, who averages 11.4 points per game on the season, has put up double-figure scoring efforts. In all three of the Bruins' Pac-12 losses, he has scored eight or less points.

The only exception is UCLA's conference opener against USC, in which Powell scored nine points as three of his teammates scored 20 or more points in the Bruins' 107-73 dismantling of the Trojans.

Nonetheless, offense isn't something that Powell thinks about frequently. His thoughts usually center on defense.

"I just play within the offense and my game and do the job that needs to be done. I'm not really focused on offense so much," the 6-foot-4 guard from San Diego said. "I know that's going to come in the flow of the game. I just try to play hard and play great defense."

Regardless of his point tally in the box score, Powell has the dynamic ability to fire up his squad with a tenacious drive to the basket, which usually culminates with an earth-shaking slam.

"He's been excellent at … getting to the rim and finishing and dunking on people," fellow guard Jordan Adams said.

"You have to know what your strengths are, and I think Norman understands his greatest strength is, one, when he's in the open floor, and two, when he's driving the ball attacking the rim," head coach Steve Alford. "Then, that sets up the other parts of his game 'cause people start backing off of him. Now, he's starting to knock down the jump shot, and if he starts knocking down the jump shot consistently, then you've got a guard that's got that full package."

Powell says that driving the ball has always been one of his strong suits, since his high school days at Lincoln H.S. in San Diego, where he became an all-state guard.

"This year, I feel like that's being put to use more," he said. "Coach likes that in his guards. That's my game, and that's why I feel like what's happening this year is really opening up my style of play 'cause the offense is geared towards that."

UCLA hopes Powell will continue to attack the basket with ferocity in the team's upcoming game against Colorado.

Although the Bruins cruised to a "key road win" despite shooting the ball poorly in Boulder, they will face a Buffaloes team that has regenerated after losing its top scorer, junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

Junior guard Askia Booker (14.2 ppg) and sophomore forwards Josh Scott (14.1 ppg) and Xavier Johnson (11.6 ppg) have carried the baton since Dinwiddie's season-ending injury.

In six of the seven games since Dinwiddie's injury, at least one of the trio has scored 20 points or more, and all three of them are coming off 20-plus-point performances in a 26-point win over Washington.

"I just think their staff and their players have done a really good job of not just keeping things status quo but moving things forward," Alford said.

That makes big performances from Powell, who put up a team-high 19 points in UCLA's first matchup against Colorado, all the more important for the Bruins to surpass the Buffaloes, who are on a three-game winning streak.

Still, Alford is more focused on concocting a scheme that's tailored to capitalizing on the advantages his team has over Colorado rather than ensuring the ball falls in the hands of a player coming off his best game of the season.

"We'll go to guys that are hot in the flow and in the rhythm (of the offense), but we look at matchups probably more than anything else and who we want to exploit on the other team because we've got confidence in .. those eight guys that are playing," Alford said.

For a defensive-minded, team-oriented player like Powell, that works out just fine.


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