UCLA can’t quite mix and match yet

Wharton is a Times staff writer.

A few more points. Two or three fewer breakdowns on defense.

UCLA almost pulled off a big win Thursday night, going into a hostile arena and taking eighth-ranked Texas down to the wire.

But when the Bruins’ players talked about coming so close, they weren’t talking about a few critical possessions or even the final score in a 68-64 loss at the Frank Erwin Center.

They were describing a team that is still searching for its identity, trying to blend veterans with a handful of talented freshmen.

“We know we have a tough team, a good team,” forward Josh Shipp said. “If we can learn from this loss, it will help us later on.”

In the simplest terms, Texas won this game in the last three minutes with the score tied at 62-62. The Longhorns won because senior guard A.J. Abrams, who led all scorers with 31 points, took control.


First, he made a three-point basket. Then he drove the lane and was fouled, making both shots to give his team a 67-64 lead.

That put the No. 12 Bruins, inconsistent on offense and playing in the din of a raucous crowd of 16,755, under too much pressure. They reverted to a familiar scenario, dribbling the ball on the perimeter, unable to create a good shot.

When these teams met at Pauley Pavilion last season, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Texas a chance to prevail in the last seconds.

This time it was Shipp who came up short from the foul line. His first shot bounced off the rim and Abrams ended up with the ball. Fouled immediately, he made one of his free throws to put the game out of reach.

“That’s a very tough loss,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.

Howland wasn’t happy with the fact that his team had let the Longhorns shoot almost 44% from the field. Nor did he like the defensive miscues that had left Texas players open for key baskets throughout the game.

“We made a lot of mistakes tonight,” he said. “A lot of things we’ll go back and watch on film.”

He also said his team should have played differently against Abrams, trying to deny him the ball. Darren Collison mused: “You give him a little space and he’s going to make the shot.”

But it wasn’t only Texas’ offense -- forward Damion James had 13 points -- that hurt the Bruins.

All week long, they had talked about how much the Longhorns had changed from last season. Deep and quick, with more experience, they had shifted to a pressure, man-to-man defense that sometimes extended beyond half-court.

“It has made them tough to score on because they’re so athletic,” Howland said.

Late in the first half, with the score close, their aggressiveness took its toll.

The Texas defense hounded UCLA’s freshman center J’mison Morgan into taking a desperate shot. Nikola Dragovic traveled, then missed from three-point range.

That quickly, the Longhorns jumped to a nine-point lead that they carried into halftime. But that’s where the Bruins showed a glimpse of what they might become.

In the early minutes of the second half, they turned up some defensive heat of their own as Shipp made a pair of dunks and center Alfred Aboya came alive inside.

When Collison, who led the team with 22 points, made a jump shot with 12:58 left, UCLA had a 47-46 lead.

The game turned into a back-and-forth affair for the next 10 minutes or so. Shipp ended up with 15 points. Aboya had 11 rebounds.

“For a young team, being on the road, they’ve got some guys who can play,” Texas Coach Rick Barnes said. “They showed a lot of character.”

Even Howland was able to take some solace in the way his team performed in the second half, saying: “To be able to come into a tough place like this and have a chance to win with three minutes to go is a good sign.”

But those final minutes showed that the Bruins still have a ways to go.

A few UCLA players talked about needing another scorer. And more of an inside presence.

They talked about the freshmen gaining experience. Guard Jrue Holiday, in particular, shot one-for-six in large part because he spent all night chasing Abrams on defense and dealing with his first noisy college crowd.

Shipp figured that he and his teammates might start winning games like this when they stop making defensive errors.

Asked what it will take to make this team better, Collison offered a hopeful answer.

“A couple more weeks,” he said.