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UCLA's loss to USC prompts players to search for answers

UCLA's loss to USC prompts players to search for answers
UCLA guard Kris Wilkes gets boxed in by USC defenders during the game on Saturday at the Galen Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Having watched his team commit the same turnovers and miss the same shots while running the same offense, Prince Ali suggested that something needed to change.

The idea of a players-only meeting was floated inside the spacious corridor where Ali stood Saturday afternoon while surrounded by reporters in a corner of USC’s Galen Center. The UCLA shooting guard noted that the Bruins had held one of those last month after a home loss to Belmont, only to lose their next three games and then their coach to a midseason dismissal.

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Maybe it was just a matter of not saying everything that needed to be said, at the proper volume.

“We need to have a real one,” Ali said of a players-only meeting. “Everybody just needs to know what’s going on, get into each other. We’re all family, so nobody needs to take anything personal and get into each other.”

That was something the Bruins certainly didn’t do over the preceding hour, showing little fight during the second half of an 80-67 loss to USC.

UCLA (10-8, 3-2 in Pac-12 Conference) was beaten down over the final 15 minutes, USC’s game-deciding 17-0 run coming amid a tragicomedy of Bruins errors. A miscommunication on a Jaylen Hands alley-oop lob led to a turnover. Chris Smith had a pass intercepted in the backcourt. Only moments after Jules Bernard nearly lost a dribble off his thigh, Hands had another pass stolen.

“We just stopped moving it,” Ali said of the Bruins’ offensive struggles. “We were really moving it in the first half but in the second half, we just got real stagnant.”

The Bruins have lost both of their games since a crazy comeback victory over Oregon that UCLA interim coach Murry Bartow said could catapult the team to greater things. Instead, the Bruins have reverted to many of the same habits that landed Bartow in this role.

The Bruins were bad across the board against USC, making five of 22 three-point shots (22.7%) and four of 12 free throws (33.3%), and committed 20 turnovers. At one point early in the second half, UCLA’s two airballed three-point shots matched the number the team had made.

USC guard Shaqquan Aaron, right, blocks the shot of UCLA center Moses Brown during the first half on Saturday.
USC guard Shaqquan Aaron, right, blocks the shot of UCLA center Moses Brown during the first half on Saturday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Even worse, the Bruins didn’t come close to matching the Trojans’ energy level. UCLA small forward Kris Wilkes intimated that the issues run deeper than a lack of execution.

“I just think we gotta trust one another more,” Wilkes said after his offensive woes worsened, his 13 points the result of making six of 15 shots and only one of six three-point tries.

Wilkes, who briefly left in the second half after taking a knee to the back, went on to detail how the trust issues were hindering the Bruins offense.

“We gotta keep moving the ball,” Wilkes said. “I don’t think we did that at all in the second half. It was kind of just one on one a lot and a lot of stagnant basketball when we were on offense, and that didn’t help us out at all.”

Finding an offensive catalyst among UCLA’s starters was like pinpointing a clean spot on a pig rolling in mud. Hands scored 15 points but had twice as many turnovers (six) as assists (three). Smith missed all five of his shots and committed two turnovers in a season-low eight minutes. Center Moses Brown scored a career-low two points to go with his seven rebounds, three blocks and some ribbing from the game emcee.

Before he stepped to the free-throw line in the first half, the emcee asked the crowd, “Hey, do we even need to make noise?”

Brown went on to miss the free throw, part of a zero-for-six showing from the line. He’s making 33.3% of his free throws for a team that is making 61.1%, tied with South Alabama for No. 343 in the country.

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It was only two weeks ago that the Bruins had appeared to have found some rhythm with high-energy showings in consecutive victories to open Pac-12 play. Now they’re searching for any semblance of a winning formula.

"It’s just something that we’re going to have to figure out internally,” Ali said. “A players-only meeting, or something. We have to talk to each other, figure it out."

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