- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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NEW YORK—In what seemed to be an exact replica of their loss to Villanova on Wednesday, UCLA spotted Virginia Commonwealth an early lead then made a valiant comeback effort only to fall short, 89-85, in the third-place game of the NIT Season Tip-off Friday at Madison Square Garden.
Both Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth sprinted to 8-0 leads before UCLA got its act together, but the Bruins never took the lead in either game. They got within striking distance in both games, but showed a troubling inability to get over the hump.
You still have to cut them a little slack for taking a young team with no seniors on a long road trip over Thanksgiving. Young players need to learn how to adjust to these types of circumstances so they can have the focus and intensity needed to keep teams from starting so fast.
It’s a little early to call this a regression. The heart and determination to keep fighting in these games—something that was absent during UCLA’s struggles last season—are signs that this team can develop. This team is facing adversity for the first time, and now we will learn quite a bit about its character.
Five thoughts from the game:
1. The Bruins can’t afford slow starts
Clearly, spotting a team an eight-point lead is no recipe for success. Two games in a row now, UCLA has come out flat and trying to feel out its opponent only to find itself in a big hole. They’ve expended a lot of energy coming back, something they can’t afford to do if they hope to be able to come out on top in close games.
“We have to come out with fire—intense from the jump so we don’t have to fight back for the rest of the game,” Lazeric Jones said. “It seemed like we were digging holes and fighting out of the holes for the whole games. Hopefully we can correct these things. I hope this doesn’t happen again. It happened twice and you have to learn from your lessons.”
2. Close isn’t good enough
Four times in the second half against Virginia Commonwealth, UCLA pulled to within a point, but couldn’t get the extra point or two to get over the hump. And all four times, the Rams answered with runs.
Perhaps the most costly was when Malcolm Lee went to the free throw line with the Bruins trialing, 40-39, and missed both free throws. Virginia Commonwealth then went on a 13-4 run for a 53-43 lead.
The Bruins spent a lot of energy coming back from that, so it’s no surprise that Jones and Tyler Honeycutt and made key turnovers in the waning moments or that Reeves Nelson missed a three-point shot that would have tied the game with six seconds to play.
“It’s very hard,” Honeycutt said of trying to get over the hump after getting to within striking distance. “We started out slow in both games and being a slow first half and having to pick it up in the second half really hurt us instead of coming out aggressive and not having to play from behind the whole game.”
3. Malcolm Lee’s shooting work is paying off
Lee struggled with long-range shooting last year, making only 25.2% of his shots from behind the arch and only 13% in Pac-10 play. He was 0-5 from long range this season entering the game against Virginia Commonwealth, but made a career-high five three pointers, including a pressure shot with 1:46 to play that got UCLA to within a point at 80-79.
He was five of seven on three-point attempts and finished with a game-high 23 points. He credits a lot of hard work in the offseason for an improved shot.
“I’m shooting with a lot more confidence,” he said.
Despite his hot shooting, Lee passed up an opportunity to shoot a game-tying three-pointer with six seconds to play, instead passing off to Nelson, who missed.
“I saw Reeves right there open,” Lee said. “And Reeves has been working on his shot, so I had confidence in him a lot. I easily could have shot it myself, but I saw him open.”
Nelson, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth consecutive double-double, said he got a good look, but just missed.
“I shot it and it didn’t go in,” he said. “That’s pretty much all there is to say about that.”
4. This team is clearly still a work in progress
A 3-0 start got Bruins faithful excited, but UCLA’s inexperience was exploited in these games against seasoned teams with senior-laden lineups.
Players such as Jones, Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb have been thrust into major college roles for the first time and are seeing moves and plays they’ve never seen before.
Returning starters Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt are sophomores tasted early success for the first time and now must learn how to handle the pressure that comes with expectations.
“This is a process,” Coach Ben Howland said. “We have a lot of growth that we have to make from our younger players.”
The team is tight knit, but Honeycutt said they are still developing as a unit on the court.
“We’re still…trying to feel each other’s chemistry,” he said. “Make sure we have sets right. A lot of players forget the sets because this is our first time learning them. But I think as time goes on, we’ll become a lot better.”
Smith in particular is still wet behind his ears and it’s becoming routine for him to play limited minutes because of foul trouble. A 6-10, 305 center, Smith played only 13 minutes Friday. He had two points, one rebound and four fouls.
“When it comes down to it, I’ve just got to prepare better and work harder and not let my team down,” Smith said. “I just want to play a game where I’m not in foul trouble so I can give my team more than 20 minutes.”
Howland said it’s all part of the learning curve.
“This is all new,” Howland said. “He’s having to learn a number of things for the first time. There’s a lot more to the game than the normal high school kid probably comes in ready for.”
5. Lazeric Jones has what it takes to lead the team
Jones, a junior college transfer point guard, is growing more and more comfortable as the on-court leader with every game.
He's taking control of the offense and has shown no signs of panic at crucial moments. Sure, he makes mistakes, but he seems to have the "it" factor a good point guard needs.
He seems to have a good feel for when to pass and when to shoot. On Friday, he drove coast-to-coast twice for layups in the final 23 seconds, keeping the game within reach, but showing the signs of a good leader, he shouldered the blame for the loss despite having scored 14 points with a career-high seven assists against Virginia Commonwealth. He said it was because he had five of UCLA’s 21 turnovers.
“I had a couple of bad turnovers that were kind of key today,” he said. “I feel like I take the blame for that loss. I feel like I have to be the person to take more control of the game.”
That kind of leadership will come in handy for the Bruins, especially as Jones grows into his role and his teammates get more comfortable with him running the offense.
“That’s why I came here. I came here to be a leader and a contributor,” Jones said. “I’m down right now about it and I’m not happy, but I need to find a way to get better and succeed in the end.”