When it was over and UCLA had persevered for its most impressive victory of the season, the Bruins gathered to exchange handshakes as if they were lining up for slop from a gulag kitchen.
The joylessness struck interim coach Murry Bartow after his team held on in a situation in which it had routinely crumbled.
Turnovers, missed free throws and sagging defense helped Oregon State take a late two-point lead Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, after trailing by as many as 12 in the second half. But a curling layup by UCLA’s Cody Riley and a banked-in runner by Chris Smith, not to mention a few defensive stops, nudged the Bruins to a 68-67 triumph over a team near the top of the Pac-12 Conference.
None of that seemed to sink in immediately.
“Our guys were a little subdued after the game,” Bartow said late Thursday night. “I wanted them to get a little more excited about beating people.”
That makes their next game the perfect remedy to indifference.
The Bruins were never more animated than after a crazy comeback last month against Oregon, which will be seeking payback for the collapse on its home court Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.
The Ducks let leads of 17 points with less than seven minutes to play and nine points with 51 seconds left vanish during an 87-84 loss in overtime. The Bruins lingered to celebrate that improbable triumph, Jaylen Hands leaping to bump bodies with teammates and Kris Wilkes placing his arm over Prince Ali’s shoulders to pull him in tight.
“This season has been a war of attrition, pretty much. Who can be the last one [standing],” Smith said in a fitting monotone. Thursday’s win felt good, he added, “but I think everybody knows in the back of their head that we’ve got a lot to do and we didn’t play that well in the second half and we’ve got to fix all those things, so I think that’s probably why we didn’t celebrate as much.”
Perhaps the only upside to residing in a mediocre conference that might generate just one at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is that it’s left every team besides Washington State and California in the running for a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.
The top four seeds start the conference tournament in the quarterfinal round, avoiding the frightening prospect of needing to win four games in as many days.
UCLA (14-13, 7-7 Pac-12) is in the midst of a massive logjam, tied with Colorado and Stanford for sixth in the standings. They are all one game behind USC and Utah, who are tied for fourth.
The Bruins’ remaining schedule features games against USC, Utah and Colorado, potentially giving them something to celebrate should they notch enough victories to climb into one of the Pac-12’s top four spots.
“It’s tough to get wins, and I want them to be excited when we get wins because it’s not easy,” Bartow said. “I just want them excited.”
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: The Ducks (15-11, 6-7) have dropped their last three road games but will be closer to full strength than they were when these teams met last month. Forward Kenny Wooten has returned from the broken jaw that sidelined him earlier this season, giving the Ducks back their top rim protector. UCLA might be without Ali, whose plantar fasciitis in his left foot has required him to wear a walking boot. But the Bruins may have found a new weapon in the free-throw shooting of center Moses Brown, who has made seven of 12 attempts over his last two games. Bartow said Brown was crouching a bit more before releasing the shots, though there might be a few other contributing factors. “Just focus and repetition,” said Brown, who is still making just 37.4% of his free throws for the season.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch