Against the Pac-12’s stingiest defense, UCLA needed nearly five minutes to finally make its first field goal. The Bruins never erased that deficit.
A 75-63 loss at Cal on Thursday kept Steve Alford at just two Pac-12 road wins this season, and knocked him down to an uninspiring 9-17 record during his UCLA tenure. With just three games left in the regular season, the Bruins (15-13, 6-9) are now assured their a non-winning conference record for just the fifth time since 1978 — when the league expanded to 10 teams and an 18-game schedule.
The more immediate ramifications are the almost certain erasure of the Bruins’ chances at the NCAA Tournament. If so, it comes in a year that might see the Pac-12 produce as many as seven March Madness bids, the most in the league’s 12-team era.
While losing at Haas Pavilion wasn’t exactly a case of the Bruins playing down to an inferior team, they also didn’t exactly help themselves. They missed their first five shots, finally breaking through on a floater by junior Isaac Hamilton. Throw in three early turnovers, and that meant a 13-1 game-opening run by Cal — not the type of cushion you want to give to a team that is undefeated at home.
Unsurprisingly, a large portion of UCLA’s struggles can be traced to the performance of Bryce Alford. The Bruins succeed when the point guard plays well, and on Thursday, he didn’t. The junior shot 1 of 7 to start the game, and finished an uncharacteristic 5 of 9 from the free-throw line.
“I start missing free throws and they start gaining steam like that, it’s hard,” he said, when asked about crowd noise. “It’s very hard on you.
“But at the same time, I don’t make any excuses for missed shots. I’m not a guy who listens to that kind of stuff. I’ve heard that kind of stuff all my life. It’s something that I don’t pay attention to. I don’t hear it during games. I know that it’s there, but I’m just trying to concentrate and make a shot.”
He found his rhythm in the second half, scoring eight points of his team’s 12 points during a three-minute stretch. That cut the deficit to seven with 12 minutes on the game clock. By the six minute mark, a jumper by Jonah Bolden had trimmed the score to 59-55.
That was as close as the Bruins got. The Bears opened up an 11-3 run, pushing the lead back to double digits inside the final two minutes.
UCLA’s zone defense slowed Cal down at times, but junior Jabari Bird got loose with a game-high 20 points, doing most of his work from downtown. His five 3-pointers more than doubled the Bruins’ total output, an uncharacteristic 2 of 9 from beyond the arc.
Senior Tony Parker started his second straight game at center, and matched Alford’s 15 points to lead the team. Sophomore big man Thomas Welsh tied a career high with 16 rebounds off the bench, but was a point short of what would have been his ninth double-double of the season. Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday combined for 22 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists.
Bolden, who had showed flashes of offensive potential in recent games, was a non-factor on that end again. He only took two shots, and was whistled four times in 22 minutes.