It was a defeat that left Ben Howland filled with regret.
If only the UCLA coach had gotten Reeves Nelson more touches …
If only he had played Tyler Honeycutt fewer minutes …
If only he had started Anthony Stover on Arizona’s Derrick Williams to begin the second half …
There was also plenty to lament about the Bruins’ defense and three-point shooting during an 85-74 loss to the Wildcats on Thursday night at the McKale Center, but those issues may not be so easy to fix.
In case UCLA needed a reminder of what it’s like to play a dynamic and athletic team after rolling over the dregs of the Pacific 10 Conference in recent weeks, Williams and Arizona were all too happy to provide it.
Williams, the sophomore power forward who projects as a small forward in the NBA, scored 22 points on seven-for-10 shooting while maneuvering around the Bruins as if they were traffic pylons.
“With me being a true center, him being out of my position, I had to do what I could do,” said UCLA’s Joshua Smith, who had 13 points and one rebound in 19 minutes in his return from a head and neck injury that had sidelined him a week.
The Wildcats (17-4 overall, 6-2 Pac-10) shot 60.9% in the second half, continually driving past the Bruins (13-7, 5-3) for uncontested layups and dunks, on the way to taking over sole possession of second place in the conference.
“Our defense in the second half was very porous,” Howland said.
UCLA’s outside shooting was simply poor. The Bruins made only two of 15 three-pointers as their four-game winning streak came to a painful conclusion.
There was reason for optimism early when Nelson shrugged off the sprained left ankle that had slowed him in practice this week to make all seven of his shots and score 17 points in the first half. He finished with 24 points on 10-for-12 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, tying a career high for points, but he wasn’t a big factor in the second half and fouled out with 2:58 left.
The Bruins received scant production from guard Lazeric Jones and Honeycutt, who combined to make one of 15 shots. Jones also committed a technical foul early in the second half when officials ruled he had intentionally elbowed Arizona guard Kyle Fogg after a play underneath the Wildcats’ basket.
Fogg made all four of the ensuing free throws to give the Wildcats a 12-point lead they would stretch to 18 before the Bruins made a too-little-too-late comeback.
“They thought I might have blatantly elbowed him,” Jones said, “but really I’m just an aggressive player. I’m just trying to get him off me … it’s really nothing blatant.”
Howland said the Bruins’ video coordinator reviewed the play and told the coach that Jones had indeed made contact after the whistle.
“We just have to have better mental toughness than that to react to whatever bump or whatever happened,” Howland said.
Defense was optional for the Bruins during much of the second half. Arizona scored the first five points on a three-pointer by Williams and a layup by Jesse Perry to go up by 10.
Howland lamented not putting Stover on Williams to start the second half, but the way the Wildcats star was slashing for one-handed tomahawk jams and alley-oop dunks, it might not have made any difference.
Honeycutt, who had eight points in 38 minutes, had his own thoughts after the game on the best way to stop Williams.
“Personally, I felt like we should have started smaller and have Reeves guarding Derrick and me play the four,” Honeycutt said. “So we’ll look at it and watch film and try to see what we need to work on.”