Baffled Bruins continue to get home-schooled

The pregame lead-up at Pauley Pavilion includes a video message from Coach Ben Howland, who says, “This is our house.” The Bruins’ players, in the locker room before home games, always remind each other, “This is the place we’ve got to protect,” forward Nikola Dragovic said.

Yet, life under those 11 national championship banners has been anything but business as usual this season. UCLA proved that again Saturday in a 72-58 loss to California that had spectators flying for the exit as if the arena’s renovation was to begin at the final buzzer.

The Bruins grabbed a 14-point first-half lead, handed it back, then spent the last 12 minutes of the game watching the Golden Bears work on the highlight video for their postseason banquet.

Jerome Randle auditioned for the final cut, hooking up with Patrick Christopher for a lob-and-dunk exclamation point on the Bears’ final points. It served to underscore Coach Mike Montgomery’s simple statement, “a 14-point victory is great for us here.”

As a perk, the victory also keeps the Bears (15-8 overall, 7-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference) atop the standings. For the Bruins (11-12, 6-5), it was their third conference loss at home, equaling their total for the last three seasons.

UCLA’s home record is 9-5, with a third of those victories coming against lightweights Cal State Bakersfield, Pepperdine and Delaware State. The 4-3 conference home record, which includes a 21-point loss to USC, means any title hopes will have to be nurtured on the road, where the Bruins play five of their last seven games.

“I just don’t know what’s going on,” Dragovic said about the Bruins’ home struggles.

He wasn’t alone.

“I don’t have explanation why we’re not finishing games at home,” guard Malcolm Lee said.

But guard Michael Roll had a theory: “We’re not as good as these guys.”

That became painfully clear as the game wore Saturday.

Roll made his first four shots and the Bruins seized a 22-8 lead, then wilted as the defensive pressure heated up. By halftime, the Bears were up, 37-30, a 21-point swing that left Howland “disappointed.”

His mood didn’t improve. California led, 48-44, with 12 minutes left. The Bruins had only two field goals and were four of 12 from the free-throw line the next 10 minutes.

“When they started heating things up with their pressure, we did not do a good job,” Howland said of the first-half collapse. As for the second-half surrender, he said, “We ended up taking some bad shots, especially when the game got tight.”

The Bears had no such trouble, shooting 55% from the field against token pressure. Christopher and Theo Robertson each scored 20 points. Christopher scored 12 of the Bears’ last 24 points.

Other than Roll, UCLA had little to offer to fight back. Roll (22 points) was nine for 14 from the field. The rest of the Bruins were 12 for 30. Dragovic was one for eight. Freshmen Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, key players in the Bruins’ winning four of their last five games, were invisible.

“They out-manned us today,” Roll said.

At home.

“It’s unfortunate,” Lee said. “If we had been better at home, we’d be in first by ourselves.”