It's a sign of the times that UCLA could lose a game at Pauley Pavilion and walk away feeling lucky not to have been routed. And the visiting coach could actually compliment the losing Bruins by calling them a very good team today .
After losing to fourth-ranked North Carolina, 80-73, before a national television audience and an unusually large crowd of 12,544 at Pauley Pavilion Saturday afternoon, UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard could only lament about the last few minutes, when the game, as usual, slipped away.
It seemed something of a moral victory that the score was tied with 3:27 left. The Bruins had played one of their best games of the season to come within seven points of a nationally ranked team.
Expectations are finally lining up with reality.
"Right now, we're coming up just a little bit short," Hazzard said. "It was a big TV game, but it was still a practice (nonconference) game. Now we need to buckle up and get ready for the games that mean something."
UCLA, 4-7 overall, is pointing toward Pac-10 competition. The defending champions got off to a 0-2 conference start a couple of weeks ago, but league play resumes this week with games at home against Oregon State Thursday night and Oregon next Sunday.
It's a sign of the times that a game against a national power is considered a "nonconference game" instead of a season highlight.
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith wasn't too effusive in praising his own team, either. The Tar Heels are wrapping up a trip that took them to Illinois, London, Reno and Los Angeles.
Smith said: "We're happy to have won this game on the road. The way it is on the road, you have to be happy if you get a one-point victory."
North Carolina's overall record went to 9-1 thanks in large part to senior guard Ranzino Smith, who took a beautiful pass from guard Jeff Lebo and put up a quick 24-footer from the left corner, good for three points to break the tie with 3:14 to play.
Lebo, who had 11 assists, outdid himself. As Dean Smith said: "I especially liked Lebo's pass to Ranzino down in the corner with the game tied. The way he passed it, he was just telling him to shoot it."
Ranzino Smith was wide open, just as he had been a few minutes earlier when he took a pass from Lebo and fired a 25-footer from the right corner.
Bruin point guard Pooh Richardson wishes he knew how Ranzino Smith happened to be so wide open, but he doesn't, he said, because he was busy at the time guarding Lebo. Lebo scored three points.
The other Bruin guard on the floor at the time was Dave Immel.
With both teams abandoning their man-to-man coverage in brief stretches and with both coaches substituting freely in a physical, foul-filled game, it's hard to place blame for point totals.
J.R. Reid, North Carolina's sophomore center, led the Tar Heels with 25 points, making 9 of 11 shots. He seemed to have more trouble scoring against the Bruins' backup center, Kelvin Butler, than he had against starter Greg Foster.
Foster played only 11 minutes. But Hazzard said he was not planning a lineup change. "We'll be patient with Greg," Hazzard said. "He's just a sophomore. Kelvin will continue to play a lot of minutes off the bench."
Butler, a 6-foot 7-inch, 233-pound senior from Riverside North High School, was willing and able to get physical with the very physical Reid, who is 6-9 and 256.
Dean Smith noted that the Bruins were throwing Reid off the ball, adding: "It's hard to throw him anywhere. He weighs 256 pounds. But they were doing it. That's a foul in the pros. That's a foul in any league."
None of the Bruins had more than three personal fouls. Reid played the closing minutes with four. Scott Williams, a 6-10 sophomore forward from Hacienda Heights Wilson High, sat out the last 7:29 of the first half with three fouls and finally fouled out with 3:27 to play.
Williams' last foul put Richardson at the free-throw line to shoot two. He made the second to tie the score, 69-69.
After a timeout, the Tar Heels made three quick passes, the final one Lebo's cross-court pass to Ranzino Smith, who was set up behind the three-point line. The next North Carolina points also went to Smith when Bruin forward Trevor Wilson was charged with goaltending, and the Tar Heels led, 74-69, with 2:39 left.
Down the stretch, Richardson missed the front end of a one-and-one while North Carolina kept making free throws.
It was the same old story at the end.
Hazzard said: "Once again, with this year's team, it was the same scenario. In the last three or four minutes, we were right there, but from that point on, we just didn't do the things we need to do to win. We didn't make free throws, we had some turnovers and we missed some layups.
"It's a tribute to their coach and their team. I've been seeing it all season. They make plays like Ranzino made at the right time.
"I liked our effort, but at crunch time we don't have the guy to take charge like we used to have. My first three years here, I had a crazy man (Reggie Miller) out there who's not afraid of anything, and he would take the shot.
"We don't have that now."
Saturday's attendance was the highest at Pauley Pavilion since the USC game last season, when 12,621 were there. . . . Dave Immel scored a career-high 25 points for the Bruins. His previous best was 24 against California earlier this season. . . . The last game of the current four-game series with North Carolina will be played next season at Chapel Hill, N.C. . . . UCLA is still trying to find a winning combination. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith even noticed that, commenting: "As soon as they get a feel as to who their players are, they are going to be an NCAA tournament team. (Two years ago), nobody expected Louisville to be in the tournament at this point in the season." UCLA had its best stretch, coming from 10 points down to 1 point down, with a lineup of starting guards Pooh Richardson and Dave Immel, starting forward Craig Jackson and reserves Charles Rochelin and Kelvin Butler.