For the second time in three seasons, UCLA ends its basketball season with a measure of sanity.
There will be no March Madness for these Bruins.
UCLA last-ditch hope for an NCAA Tournament appearance went out with not a bang but a whisper on Thursday afternoon in a 66-58 loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Buried by a 10-minute stretch to open the first half that rivaled the worst in the team’s recent history – the Bruins managed just six points in the game’s first 11 minutes, 28 seconds – they now wait to find out if they’ll even receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
“No question,” Howland said about accepting an NIT bid, if one were offered. “We would not snub our nose at the opportunity to play in the NIT.”
Now Howland has to hope the selection committee turned the game on late.
If UCLA fans thought the Bruins’ win over USC in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday set offensive basketball back 50 years, the team’s first-half performance on Thursday pushed it back another 300.
And the game wasn’t even invented until 1891.
The Bruins drove to the lane in horse-drawn carriage, exchanged errant passes with bumbling dribbling and struggled to even attempt a shot. Players even tripped over their own feet and Arizona was not much better, making just 6-of-20 attempts in the first half. UCLA was able to keep it close for much of the half, eventually heading into the locker room down 29-23, only because of the Wildcats’ woes.
“We just didn’t get as good of shots and we didn’t really handle it, like coach said, didn’t handle their pressure very well,” said UCLA senior guard Jerime Anderson, who scored 14 points and added four rebounds and four assists. “There are two different styles of play from last game to this game. USC backed off of us and we still struggled.
I just think that we didn’t execute very well in the first half, and that’s what led to us not making shots and not getting a good start.”
Arizona maintained at least four-point cushion until 10:13 remained in the game as the Bruins slowly climbed back in it. A steal-and-layup by junior guard Tyler Lamb gave UCLA its first lead since 2-1 at the 8:17 mark. Arizona freshman guard Nick Johnson’s tip-in 25 seconds later gave the Wildcats the lead, and they would not trail for the rest of the game.
Johnson would not make another field goal, but he made his presence known on the defensive end, picking up four blocks, including two on one play, stifling a UCLA fast break.
“Nick Johnson made all the hustle plays he needed to make to win the game,” Lamb said. “Those plays count. He just pulled those off.”
Johnson’s play helped bolster a backcourt missing one of its most valuable contributors, freshman Josiah Turner, who was suspended indefinitely by Arizona coach Sean Miller on Wednesday for a violation of team rules.
UCLA was also without the services of one of its most crucial pieces – for all but nine minutes.
Sophomore center Joshua Smith fouled out in under 10 minutes, picking up his fifth foul with 11:02 left in the game on the defensive end after missing a free throw that would have allowed Howland to sub in backup center Anthony Stover. Smith’s absence left the Bruins shorthanded in the post and sophomore forward Travis Wear fouled out with 2:52 left as Jesse Perry’s two free throws gave Arizona an eight-point lead and more than enough cushion.
“I was worried about the game getting stretched away from us at that point,” Howland said. “That’s why I gambled on him. That’s what we’ve done before. But the second foul shot (Smith) missed, so we didn’t get a chance to sub in for him. We were subbing for him with Stover. Then they went down, and he picked up his fifth foul on that possession.”
UCLA’s hopes for a ticket to the NCAA Tournament may have been stomped out, but Bruins fans got a bit of good news as Smith said he would return for his junior season. Smith said he would address the weight issues that have plagued him since arriving in Westwood, and he said he’s ready to start working now.
“There’s no way I’ll ever leave on a note like that,” Smith said. “Whenever I leave, I want to make sure we go out with a bang and I go out like a bang.
“Nothing like this.”