UCLA's Pac-12 tourney loss adds more disappointment to difficult season

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
9:26
PM PT
Joshua SmithGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe expression of the UCLA bench says it all in the waning moments of the Bruins' loss to Arizona.

LOS ANGELES -- A difficult and sometimes bizarre season took a disappointing turn for the UCLA basketball team in a game that pretty much summed up the way the season went.

The Bruins lost, 66-58, to Arizona Thursday in a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal that, much like the season, featured UCLA fighting through adversity, looking as if it might turn a corner but could never quite get things rolling in the right direction.

UCLA (19-14) will lament losing the game in a wide-open Pac-12 tournament that was their only possible path to the NCAA tournament, especially after the Bruins' path to the final cleared somewhat with top-seeded Washington's loss earlier in the day, but the inconsistencies that have plagued UCLA all season did so again against Arizona.

The Bruins did not put together a win streak of more than three games in conference play this season and could not put together a stretch of more than five minutes of high-level play Thursday. The Bruins fell into an early hole, climbed back out and made a run, but could not close it out.

"We had our opportunities to win and did not seize the moment," coach Ben Howland said.

The same could be said for UCLA all season. UCLA lost four conference games by three points or fewer and lost four times on the road after taking second-half leads. Those close losses ended up being the difference between making the NCAA tournament and hoping for an NIT invitation.

But so are so many other things.

The Bruins entered this season without two of their top three leading scorers from last year after Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt left school to enter the NBA draft. UCLA lost the third member of that group when Reeves Nelson was kicked off the team seven games in. The fourth-leading scorer, Joshua Smith, reported for the season grossly out of shape and was hardly a factor most of the season.

The rest of the Bruins tried to keep things together, but simply never built any momentum.

"It was hard to get a consistent happy feeling that we were playing at the top of our game," forward Travis Wear said. "It was just a lot of ups and downs this season. We dealt with it pretty well, I think. We all stayed together and didn’t fray amongst ourselves so if there is a positive in all of this, it's the way our team stuck together."

The difficulty of the season began long before it even began. UCLA was forced out of its home arena because of a year-long renovation project at Pauley Pavilion and the Bruins had no real home court this season.

A few games at the Honda Center and mostly poorly-attended games at the Sports Arena provided a bizarre backdrop for the season. Then came Smith's problems and Nelson's incidents and the mysterious disappearance of De'End Parker, who played the first two games and then not again before finally transferring in January.

Late in the season, a Sports Illustrated report alleged mass dysfunction among the team. This was no picnic of a season.

"I don’t feel like many teams could have went through what we went through without breaking apart," senior captain Lazeric Jones said. "It shows the type of character that this team has that we came out and were able to fight for each other. That's one thing we can hold our heads up about."

Moral victories don't really count at UCLA, though. For the season to end without a berth in the NCAA tournament can be described as nothing but a failure at a school that has won 11 national titles, was ranked No. 17 in the nation to start the season and was picked to win the Pac-12 but finished fifth.

"It wasn't a good season for us," center Joshua Smith said. "All the hype that was surrounding us and we didn't do the things we wanted to do.

A quick look at how UCLA's failed season came to an end against Arizona:

OVERVIEW: Arizona forwards Solomon Hill (6-6) and Jesse Perry (6-7) attacked the bigger, but slower, Bruins on the inside and dominated the action with a combined 41 points and 24 rebounds despite playing against a UCLA front line that includes Travis Wear, David Wear, Smith and Anthony Stover -- all of whom are 6-10.

Those four UCLA players combined for 21 points and 18 rebounds with Smith and Travis Wear both fouling out.

Hill and Perry continually made aggressive moves in the paint against the Bruins and Hill added some outside touch as well, making 3-of-6 3-pointers. Arizona out-rebounded UCLA, 39-30, despite a distinct size advantage for the Bruins.

UCLA started slowly for the second consecutive day, falling into a 21-11 hole with 6:40 left int he first half, but surged back to within one at 24-23 before going into halftime down, 29-23. The Bruins fell behind, 43-36, midway through the second half, but rallied back to tie the score at 51-51 with 6:16 to play before Arizona closed it out by making 13 of 15 free throws in the final 5:41.

TURNING POINT: UCLA seemed to be fighting back from deficits the entire game, but had the score tied at 51-51 on a 3-pointer by Jerime Anderson with 6:16 to play before going into an offensive funk.

The Bruins made only one field goal after that, shooting 1-for-7 as the Wildcats (22-10) ended the game on a 15-7 run. Arizona stretched its lead to 61-53 with 2:52 to play and made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 42 seconds to seal the victory.

UCLA STAR OF THE GAME: Anderson had 14 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals and was most effective when the Bruins were battling back. He scored six points during a 16-8 run as UCLA closed a 16-7 deficit to one point then scored seven points when UCLA rallied from down 43-36 to a 51-51 tie. Anderson's 3-pointer tied the score with 6:16 to play.

STAT OF THE GAME: Arizona made 31-of-36 free throws (86.1 percent) including 24-of-27 (88.9 percent) in the second half. The Wildcats scored all but 14 of their 37 second-half points from the free-throw line and had only six points from the field in the final 16:25. They did not make a field goal in the final 4:43.

UCLA, meanwhile, got to the free-throw line only 16 times and shot 62.5% (10-of-16). UCLA's front line players of the Wear twins, Smith and Stover attempted only six combined free throws.

WHAT IT MEANS:UCLA's postseason hopes rest in the hands of the NIT selection committee because the Bruins needed to win the Pac-12 tournament to advance to the NCAAs. It will be the second time in three years UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins say they will accept an NIT bid if invited so the season may not be over just yet, but it's certainly a disappointment whenever UCLA doesn't make the Big Dance.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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