UCLA loses to Virginia Commonwealth, 89-85, at NIT Season Tip-Off basketball tournament

Sometimes the saying needs to be reversed. It's not how you finish but how you start, particularly when you keep spotting the other team the first eight points.

UCLA fell into an early hole again Friday at Madison Square Garden and never fully recovered during an 89-85 loss to Virginia Commonwealth in a NIT Season Tip-Off consolation game.

The humble beginnings have become a troubling trend for a team that arrived in New York undefeated and departed after a pair of defeats in which it never led.

"Honestly, I don't know what it is," Bruins sophomore forward Reeves Nelson said. "We have to do something to fix it."

Nelson contributed a commendable patch job with his fourth consecutive double-double, getting 10 rebounds to go with 20 points. And he had a chance to give the smattering of UCLA fans who made the trip here a highlight besides the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

After the Bruins (3-2) put together a frenetic rally in the final minute to close within three points, they got the ball back with 13 seconds left. When the Rams hounded UCLA's Malcolm Lee, who had already made a career-high five three-pointers on the way to 23 points, the junior guard swung a pass to Nelson on the wing.

Nelson spotted up from three-point range, but his shot was well off the mark and the Rams grabbed the rebound. Virginia Commonwealth's Bradford Burgess made one of two free throws to seal the outcome.

Slow starts certainly aren't the only thing plaguing the young Bruins, who committed 21 turnovers, repeatedly left Virginia Commonwealth players open on the perimeter and continued to get little production out of foul-prone center Joshua Smith.

UCLA sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt, a steadying force with 18 points and 13 rebounds, even acknowledged that "a lot of players" were forgetting sets. Not surprising, perhaps, for a team with no seniors and only two juniors who play regularly.

"We have kids who still don't know exactly what to do, where to go, because it's all new," Bruins Coach Ben Howland said. "We're dependent upon a lot of young new players playing major minutes."

Smith wasn't one of them. The freshman played only 13 minutes after picking up four fouls for a fifth consecutive game. He made the only shot he took and grabbed one rebound.

"When it comes down to it, I just have to work harder at not letting the team down," said Smith, who played only four minutes in the second half.

Howland burned three timeouts in the first half in the wake of his team's shoddy start. The Bruins repeatedly hoisted shots early in the shot clock and struggled to contain Virginia Commonwealth's Jamie Skeen (23 points). The forward scored the game's first six points as the Rams took an 8-0 lead, just as Villanova had done two days earlier.

"They just came out and punched us in the mouth first," Smith said. "They were more physical than us."

UCLA's deficit grew to 11 points before Lee, who in previous games had missed all five of his three-pointers this season, began to heat up. He made a trio of three-pointers before missing one at the halftime buzzer that would have tied the score.

After Smith opened the second half with a basket in the paint, Lee stepped to the line for two free throws that could have given UCLA the lead. Instead, he missed both, and the Bruins eventually fell behind by 11 points.

They had one final rally left when a pair of driving layups by Lazeric Jones in the final minute pulled UCLA to within two points. Virginia Commonwealth's Joey Rodriguez then missed one of two free throws with 13 seconds left, giving the Bruins an opening that closed when Nelson's three-pointer came up short.

Jones said the Bruins are feeling the growing pains all young teams must endure.

"You have to go through things like this to come out and succeed in the end," he said. "It's not a [sprint], it's a marathon."

Of course, it never helps to give your opponent a big head start.


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