- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- What little hope UCLA had for this season disappeared into the rafters during a 73-63 loss to California on Saturday afternoon at the Sports Arena.
Talk of running the table and winning the Pac-12 Conference wafted away as California clearly claimed its spot as the top team in the league with a convincing win on the road.
UCLA had hinted that it was poised for a late-season surge, but the Golden Bears dashed those hopes and the Bruins must now try to find a way to heal their bruised egos and figure out a way to salvage the season.
A run to the Pac-12 tournament title is about the only path to the NCAA tournament for UCLA at this point, but so long as California stands in the way, the Bruins seem to have no shot at that, either.
The Bruins have been competitive in every conference game this season except for the two against Cal. You could argue the Bruins should have won every conference game this season, except for the two tangos with the Golden Bears.
A victory Saturday would have kept some semblance of hope alive. Heck, a close loss might even let you think the Bruins (14-11, 7-6 Pac-12) could pull an upset over Cal (20-6, 10-3) should they meet sometime down the road. But the thorough and methodical pounding the Golden Bears delivered both times they played UCLA makes it pretty clear which is the superior team as the Bruins fell three games behind Cal with five conference games to play.
"It’s disappointing obviously," UCLA guard Jerime Anderson said. "We saw where we could have been and where we’re at now. We look at it like that was the game at hand and we needed to beat that Cal team just for our sake, but it didn’t go down like that today."
Just like in their first meeting, when Cal blasted UCLA, 85-69, the Golden Bears took control with a second-half surge. UCLA trailed, 32-26, at halftime Saturday, but the Bruins got only one defensive stop on Cal's first 12 possessions of the second half and had a 56-39 lead with 13:24 to play.
That run seemed to suck all the life out of the Bruins, who seemed resigned to defeat over the next five minutes as Cal maintained its lead. Coach Ben Howland wouldn't have any of it. During a timeout, he chastised the team for giving up and implored them to keep fighting.
The Bruins responded, cutting the Cal lead to 66-59 with 3:15 to play, but could not get any closer.
"I was kind of disappointed the way were kind of hanging our head when we had the big deficit and I really got on them and we really fought back at that point," Howland said. "You never hang your head, you never quit, you never give up, you keep fighting always. Hopefully that’s a lesson learned from today. You can’t ever display that."
That was a difficult thing to do for the UCLA players, who had a sense of deja vu as Cal began pulling away. It was the same modus operandi the Golden Bears used in Berkeley, where they led by one at halftime then blitzed to a 24-point lead before winning by 16.
"It was tough because at halftime we had talked about coming out strong and not letting them jump out like they did the last time we played them," forward David Wear said. "It was tough that we let that happen again."
Now the Bruins must fight to stay in this season. The Bruins entered this season as favorites to win the conference title, but have very slim chances of doing so now despite a favorable schedule with three of their final five conference games at home.
The best-case scenario now appears to be a fourth-place finish in conference to secure a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. Fifth or lower and the Bruins would have to win four games in four days to earn an NCAA tournament berth. No conference team has ever done that.
Still, that is at least something. The Bruins say they aren't going to give up. The loss to California may have taken the Bruins out of the regular-season title race, but that was going to be a longshot anyway.
"It would be a lot more difficult to swallow if we were in a different situation, but we know where we are," center Joshua Smith said. "This was a game if we would have won we would have moved up in the standings, but we’re not really in a place where one loss is going to kill us that much."
But it remains to be seen if UCLA can put together enough complete games to make a serious run at the conference tournament. So far, they haven't. Just when it looked as if the Bruins were ready to make a run by winning a close game at Washington State and then taking care of Stanford on Thursday, they went away from their recipe for success.
Unselfish play and solid team defense had helped the Bruins get back into the conference race, but Saturday the Bruins had no assists in the first half and finished with a season-low seven as players drove the lane instead of passing and took bad outside shots instead of running the offense.
On defense, the Bruins were slow in rotations and couldn't stay with the heavy-motion and well-executed pick-and-roll offense Cal threw at them.
"When we started to fall behind, guys started to try to do a little too much on their own rather than stay within the team framework," Howland said.
The Bruins maintain that if they play their best, they can handle a team like Cal. The Bruins missed a number of easy layups and inside chip shots Saturday and also made only four of 14 3-point shots -- well below the conference-leading 41.9 percent UCLA was shooting entering the game.
"They are the best team in our league," Smith said. "They execute their stuff, all their guys can score and they have great coaching. But we’re not scared of any team. We’ll play any team. They’re obviously a good team and we’re not going to take anything away from that. They beat us pretty good twice, but if they are in our way to get to the tournament we’re going to go out there and see what we can do."
"We're not going to quit," Smith added. "We're going to keep playing hard and see where that lands us when it's over."
And as long as it's not another game against Cal, the Bruins might stand a chance.