In building a 10-point lead against North Carolina Sunday, the UCLA basketball team at least accomplished something.
And what was that?
“We scared them,” said the Bruins’ Pooh Richardson. “We scared them pretty much. We had them really scared.”
But not beaten.
North Carolina made 59.1% of its shots in the second half and rallied to beat the Bruins, 88-81, before a crowd of 12,821 at the Omni in the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
The victory moved the Tar Heels (29-7) into the Southeast Regional semifinals, where they will meet Michigan (26-7) Thursday night at Lexington, Ky.
Michigan, a 91-82 winner over South Alabama Sunday, was eliminated from the tournament by North Carolina in each of the last two seasons.
UCLA, meanwhile, ended its season with a 21-10 record that included a 104-78 loss to North Carolina three months ago at Chapel Hill, N.C.
The Bruins played the fifth-ranked Tar Heels much tighter this time, obviously, but UCLA was unable to prevent North Carolina from reaching the tournament’s round of 16 for the ninth straight season.
The Bruins played almost flawlessly in the first half, making 64.3% of their shots in building a 51-41 lead late in the first half. UCLA led, 52-44, at halftime.
Down the stretch, though, the Bruins cracked.
In squandering a 70-66 lead, they made only four of 16 shots and only one of six free throws in the last 8 1/2 minutes.
“We didn’t do a good enough job of executing our offense in the second half,” said UCLA’s Trevor Wilson, who scored only three of his team-high 21 points in the last 20 minutes. “They did a good job defensively, took us out of sync and we started rushing things a little bit.
“We fell out of our scheme and our plan of attack.”
The Bruins, Wilson suggested, turned selfish.
“Whatever was open in the first half, we took,” Wilson said. “But in the second half, we started rushing things and tried to create things instead of letting things happen within the offense.”
Richardson, in particular, seemed to step out of his role.
Instead of orchestrating the offense, the Bruins’ senior point guard attempted, unsuccessfully, to be the offense.
On the eve of the game, Richardson told a group reporters on Saturday: “If I have to do it myself, I will.”
Apparently, he meant it.
“The key to their team is Richardson,” said North Carolina’s Jeff Lebo. “When he’s dishing the ball to other people and hitting from the outside, they seem to really rally around him.”
Richardson, though, neither dished nor hit.
He made only one of seven shots in the last eight minutes.
And the Bruins crumbled.
North Carolina outscored them, 18-8, at the game’s most important juncture, taking advantage of UCLA’s most glaring weakness, interior defense, after opening up the inside by scoring 12 straight points on three-point shots.
“They were just attacking,” Wilson said. “They hit some outside shots they hadn’t been hitting, which made us extend. And then they exploited our weak spots on the baseline.
“They’re good post players. They’re really strong down there and when they get the ball down low, more often than not they score.”
It might have been worse, too.
North Carolina played without J.R. Reid, the 6-foot-9 U.S. Olympian who is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder and was the most valuable player in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Reid was suspended Saturday for violating the team’s 1 a.m. curfew.
Reid’s absence, though, created operating room for Kevin Madden, a 6-4 forward who led the Tar Heels with 22 points.
“Kevin was able to play more with his back to the basket and play his natural high school position as a postman,” said Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith. “That would be the only thing we’d gain (in Reid’s absence).”
It was enough.
Madden’s two free throws put the Tar Heels ahead to stay, 76-75, with five minutes left. After Richardson missed two free throws with 4:24 remaining, Scott Williams took a pass in the lane and scored to make it 78-75.
North Carolina didn’t make another shot, scoring its last 10 points on free throws and holding off the Bruins defensively.
The Tar Heels, Lebo said, took control when they stopped feeling sorry for themselves and remembered they had successfully opened the season without Reid, winning eight of nine games while the junior forward recuperated from a stress fracture in his left foot.
“In the first half, we weren’t in it,” he said. “We didn’t have the fire in our eyes. We didn’t play with the intensity we had in the ACC tournament. It felt like everybody was pitying themselves because he wasn’t there.
“But we got together in the locker room and said, ‘Our defense isn’t intense. They’re shooting from the outside, but we can do something about that--get up (in their face) a little bit.’ ”
A pair of free throws by Steve Bucknall, who scored 19 points, followed a missed bank shot by Richardson and gave the Tar Heels an 80-75 lead.
Williams then blocked a shot by Wilson, but missed a free throw at the other end and UCLA’s Don MacLean scored to make it 80-77.
UCLA later had a chance to cut its deficit to two points, but Richardson, after taking a rebound of a missed free throw by Wilson, had his shot blocked by the 6-10 Williams, who is nine inches taller than Richardson.
Hadn’t Richardson seen him?
“I saw him,” Richardson said. “I tried to draw contact, but I didn’t. He blocked it. It was just a good block.”
Later, two more free throws by Madden, one with 1:44 left and one with 1:24 left, put North Carolina ahead, 84-78, and when Wilson missed two free throws with 1:13 remaining, UCLA seemed to be finished.
The rebound, though, was controlled by UCLA and the ball wound up in the hands of Richardson, who ended an 0-for-4 drought by connecting on a three-point shot that pulled the Bruins within 84-81 with 1:07 left.
But UCLA, which got 17 points from Kevin Walker and 16 from MacLean, didn’t score again. Charles Rochelin missed a three-point attempt after Lebo made a free throw and Richardson missed a three-pointer after a free throw by Bucknall gave North Carolina an 86-81 lead.
“We had enough shots to win, but we just didn’t execute,” said UCLA Coach Jim Harrick, whose team made only 36.7% of its second-half shots.
North Carolina’s comeback rendered meaningless a brilliant first half by the Bruins, who hadn’t scored as many points in the opening 20 minutes since Dec. 1, when they scorched Miami for 52 points in a 91-66 rout.
“We did not play that poorly in the first half,” Smith said. “UCLA was outstanding. It was the (most) points per possession scored against us in years. We tried everything to stop them.”
Not much worked, though.
The Bruins overcame a 13-6 deficit by outscoring the Tar Heels, 45-28, in a stretch of about 14 1/2 minutes.
Walker and Richardson bombed the Tar Heels from the outside and Wilson and MacLean burned them from underneath and along the baseline.
An unusual dunk by Wilson, whose shot took a fortunate bounce off the rim before settling into the net, ended a 19-6 run by the Bruins, giving them a 51-41 lead with 1:34 left in the half.
In the second half, though, their lead evaporated.
Still, Richardson said, “We almost got them.”
But not quite.
North Carolina, which made 17 of 36 shots in the first half, made 13 of 22 in the second half, including four of nine from three-point range. In the first half, the Tar Heels made only three of 14 three-point attempts. . . . UCLA, which made 18 of 28 shots in the first half, made only 11 of 30 in the second half and also connected on only three of 10 free throws. . . . North Carolina’s Steve Bucknall had 11 assists and only one turnover.
North Carolina is 16-7 against teams that made the NCAA tournament. UCLA was 4-8 against teams that made the tournament. . . . UCLA has not advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament since 1980, when it lost in the final to Louisville.
North Carolina is making a record 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. UCLA had a streak of 15 straight appearances ended in 1982, when it was ineligible for postseason competition because of recruiting violations. . . . In its 104-78 loss to North Carolina Dec. 17 at Chapel Hill, N.C., UCLA never trailed by less than 14 points in the second half.