The lead had been lost and it looked like the game might have been too when Steve Alford noisily went about making his points in the timeout huddle.
The UCLA coach tossed his whiteboard to the court. He yelled at his players, never lowering his voice. The message was the same as it had been in the locker room only minutes earlier: The Bruins had to find a way to stand up to one of the nation’s top teams.
“He gave us the answers to the test, as he always says,” sophomore forward Kris Wilkes said of the exchange less than two minutes into the second half, “and we still failed it.”
Lessons abounded throughout No. 17 UCLA’s 94-78 loss to No. 7 North Carolina on Friday afternoon at Orleans Arena in the consolation game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
The top takeaway is a familiar lament for the Bruins going back to last season — their inability to sustain effort. On Thursday night, they were overrun in the first half of a 20-point loss to Michigan State. Less than a day later, it was their struggles in the second half that doomed them to a second consecutive defeat after holding a five-point halftime lead.
“I’ve been harping on that every time I come out here,” said Wilkes, who scored a team-high 22 points while shaking off a nasty calf cramp to return in the final minute. “Our struggle is [playing] the whole 40 minutes, and unfortunately that was the same thing that happened tonight.”
The Bruins (4-2) momentarily rebounded after being admonished by Alford in the timeout huddle. Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands’ three-pointer gave UCLA a 62-60 lead before the Tar Heels (6-1) scored the next 11 points, including Nassir Little’s vicious one-handed dunk over Jalen Hill. The Bruins never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“They got into us,” said Bruins redshirt freshman power forward Cody Riley, who had 11 points and nine assists in another strong effort off the bench, “and with us being a young team, we didn’t adapt to it.”
Some of the biggest freshman moments belonged to center Moses Brown, who fouled out after playing just eight minutes. He also tried to enter the game at one point without checking in at the scorer’s table.
The first half involved more pleasing developments for a team that had been blown out less than 24 hours earlier. Riley said he got to sleep around 1 a.m. Friday after Alford made his players re-watch the gruesome footage of the first 10 minutes of their loss to Michigan State, when they fell behind 24-9.
UCLA logged just eight assists against the Spartans but discovered it might be able to play with just about anyone when it moves the ball. Hands matched that assist total singlehandedly against the Tar Heels as part of the Bruins’ 10-assist effort before halftime, earning praise from coaches.
“I thought he was terrific in the first half,” Alford said, “and we said, ‘Go get 16 assists.’ ”
Hands added only one more assist, finishing with 14 points, nine assists and four turnovers. The Bruins shot 37.5% in the second half, largely as a result of forcing jumpers and other contested shots because they refused to make the extra pass.
“We really got back to standing and holding the ball,” Alford said, “and the ball didn’t move.”
North Carolina had no such problems, finishing with 21 assists on its 31 made baskets. Guard Coby White logged eight of those assists while also finishing with a team-high 19 points.
While Alford said he “probably made the mistake of praising” his team at halftime, he acknowledged the coming days would be all about addressing deficiencies as the Bruins open a four-game homestand against Hawaii on Wednesday.
Any criticism will apparently be met by a receptive audience.
“Coach got on us, but I feel like he needs to be on us more,” Wilkes said. “I’m not blaming him at all, it’s all a players thing and then that unfortunately comes back to bite him as well when we don’t play hard.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch