UCLA can’t handle the heat

It was only a few days ago that everything seemed to be going UCLA’s way.

The Bruins were on a four-game winning streak and had taken over first place in the Pacific 10 Conference. Their poll numbers were on the rise.

All of that seems to be a distant memory now.

Now 11th-ranked UCLA is stumbling home from a lost weekend in the desert, a pair of defeats that culminated with an 84-72 loss to Arizona at the McKale Center on Saturday.

“It’s weird, it comes and goes,” forward Drew Gordon said of the team’s abruptly departed momentum. “We just have to get to a constant pace.”

And the Bruins have to get there quickly, with Pac-10 leader Washington coming to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night in what appears to be a must-win situation for a UCLA team that hopes for a fourth consecutive conference title.


“This is going to be a gut-check week for us,” Coach Ben Howland said.

Howland had hoped that his team (19-6, 8-4 in conference) could bounce back from Thursday night’s close loss to Arizona State. But on Saturday, Arizona beat them at their own game.

Namely, defense.

The Wildcats -- on a roll with seven consecutive victories -- were a very different team from the one that lost by 23 points at Pauley Pavilion last month. They extended their zone past halfcourt, pestering the UCLA ballhandlers.

“We tried to trap as much as we could and just frustrate them,” forward Chase Budinger said. “It definitely worked.”

The Bruins got flustered, speeding up, launching ill-advised shots and throwing careless passes -- “Inexplicable,” Howland called it -- on their way to 20 turnovers that translated into 18 points for the Wildcats.

Veterans Darren Collison and Josh Shipp had no real answer for what happened.

“We didn’t handle their pressure,” Collison said. “It was just one of those games when everybody was misreading everybody.”

The Bruins also reverted to old ways, taking 14 of their 26 shots in the first half from three-point range. With little penetration to speak of, they did not manage a single foul shot in those first 20 minutes.

That goes a long way toward explaining why Arizona had a 49-31 lead at halftime.

“It’s hard to dig that kind of hole and come back,” Howland said.

To their credit, the Bruins fought back in the second half. After trailing by 25 points with a little more than nine minutes remaining, they began to chip away at Arizona’s lead. Collison did much of the damage, getting hot from outside on his way to a team-high 26 points.

But the Wildcats (18-8, 8-5) did not let UCLA get any closer than nine points. And it wasn’t just because of their defense.

Arizona forward Jordan Hill dominated inside for most of the day, scoring 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

“He was way more aggressive on the boards this time,” UCLA center Alfred Aboya said, referring to Hill’s performance against the Bruins in January. “He made a [concerted] effort to go right at the block.”

The Wildcats got an even more impressive performance from guard Nic Wise, who led his team with 26 points and had only two turnovers.

“He is fearless, aggressive and whenever we’re going to be going up against a good point guard, he is always stepping up,” Arizona interim Coach Russ Pennell said.

The last time the Bruins were swept on a Pac-10 trip was in Howland’s first season when they went 0-for-Oregon at the end of the conference schedule. After these two losses, there was only one thing for them to do.

The players talked about getting back to practice. Howland talked about Washington as “the biggest game of the year for us.”

But there was still the prospect of a short and less-than-celebratory trip home.

“It’s going to be a bad plane ride, it’s going to be a bad bus ride,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “It’s pretty much going to be bad until the next game.”