Column: UCLA gets a hard gut check against Arizona

Arizona guards Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier celebrate a 96-85 victory over UCLA and Isaac Hamilton on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Sure, it was a wakeup call, except the phone reached over and punched them in the gut.

Yeah, it was a teaching moment, except it ended with them curled up under a blackboard and spitting out chalk.

There are lots of ways to look at third-ranked UCLA’s deflating 96-85 loss to No. 14 Arizona at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, but perhaps the best way would be to actually look at Pauley Pavilion.

When the game began, the building was filled and rocking with an energy rarely felt here in recent years. The eight-clap was a roar. The sections bulging with white-shirted students were a sight. A national anthem featuring four trumpeters from the four corners of the arena was so original and touching, it was actually interrupted with cheers.


Then …

“We got hit,’’Coach Steve Alford said.

Did they ever, and by the time the game ended, the atmosphere had been demolished, the place half empty, some longtime fans having turned their backs and headed for the exits, many students fleeing up the aisles back to the dorms. The place was quiet and somber except for — and you knew this was coming — that annoying, “U of A’’ chant clanking down from the rafters.

Call it what you will, but in their biggest home moment of the season, the Bruins and their aura were knocked out by a big and skilled Arizona team that took the lead for good with about five minutes left in the first half and spent the rest of the game pounding serious truths into college basketball’s fun zone.

“They needed their shorts snapped a little bit,’’ Alford said of the 19-2 Bruins.

Shorts snapped? Sounds awkward, even painful, but it works as well as anything.

The Bruins seemed unbeatable even after that last-second loss at Oregon, but no more. The Bruins seemed destined to earn a No. 1 seed and a geographically favorable NCAA tournament draw, but no more.

The Bruins seemed a good bet for a spot in the Final Four, but this is the kind of bruising challenge they will have to win in March to get there, and Saturday they couldn’t.

Shorts snapped, attention earned.

The Bruins learned that scoring a zillion points isn’t going to win a championship if they can’t play smart and tough defense. The Wildcats made half their shots, outscored UCLA by six points on second-chance baskets, and basically answered every glorious Bruins score with their own gritty basket.

“We’ve got to guard,’’ Lonzo Ball said, shaking his head.

The Bruins also learned that running up and down the court isn’t so easy when you don’t get rebounds. The Wildcats, starting two seven-footers, outrebounded the Bruins by nine and basically outmuscled and outhustled them at every slippery corner.


“You never want to lose a game like this,’’ Bryce Alford said quietly.

And especially not how they lost it, by making several loud and frenzied runs that ended when they couldn’t guard, couldn’t block out, or simply forgot to pass.

They closed the gap to a couple of points midway through the second half, but then Gyorgy Goloman ran down and threw up a quick three-point attempt that clanked and the Wildcats responded with five quick points to pull away again. It was Goloman’s second three-point attempt of the season, and was indicative of how the staggered Bruins never found their flow.

With 2 minutes 34 seconds remaining, the Bruins trailed by only six points when Ball blocked a shot by Allonzo Trier. But Kadeem Allen grabbed the ball and drove right past Alford for a layup.

Then, with 1:09 remaining, the Bruins trailed by only six points again when Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright missed a layup. But the Wildcats’ Lauri Markkanen flew past TJ Leaf for a followup dunk and an eventual three-point play that clinched it.

The Bruins’ last gasp was a three-point attempt by Alford that hit nothing but nothing, appropriately ending what could have been a slam-dunk of an afternoon with an airball.

“It’s a quiet locker room right now,’’ Steve Alford said. “It’s a locker room that’s upset and needs to be.’’


On the other side, Arizona left the court looking giddy, and why not? It was the Wildcats who looked like the Final Four team, their only losses to Butler and Gonzaga, their starting lineup featuring two seven-footers and their team benefiting from Saturday’s return of Trier, who sat out the first 19 games because of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Every time Trier touched the ball Saturday, he heard loud chants of “Ster-oids, ster-oids.’’ But he shrugged and scored a dozen points with a calm that his team found infectious.

“We just play like we do, we do what we do,’’ said Arizona star freshman guard Kobi Simmons, who was named after Kobe Bryant, which will make a lot of Lakers fans suddenly feel very old.

The Bruins, meanwhile, need to be better in the part of the game that isn’t so flashy and doesn’t have all the cool statistics, because it’s the part that will ultimately define them in two months.

“They’ve got to learn, we’ve been talking the whole time, I think we’re a very good basketball team, but if we want to become great, we’ve got to play as unselfishly defensively together as we do on the offensive end,’’ Alford said.


The Bruins still have to play USC twice, plus a home game against Oregon and a visit to Arizona, before the Pac-12 Conference tournament in early March. There’s plenty of time to fix things, but only if the Bruins start paying as much attention to grit as glitz.

Steve Alford said that afterward he told them, “You could be special, by the time we get to March you could be awfully special, but your defense has got to grow.’’

Either that or, you know, buy looser shorts.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke