UCLA coach Steve Alford was fairly pleased as he addressed his team at halftime Thursday night. Top players Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh had combined for only two points, yet the Bruins led Stanford on the Cardinal’s home court.
“I’m like, ‘Here’s your two leading scorers haven’t got a field goal and you’re up five,’” Alford said afterward, recalling what he told his players. “‘It’s because you guarded. Now just guard in the second half.’”
Uh, about that …
The Bruins struggled to stay between their man and the basket the rest of the game, surrendering 49 points in the second half and an additional 22 points in the two overtimes of a 107-99 loss. Stanford, which had been defeated earlier this season by Eastern Washington, Long Beach State and Portland State, came back from a 13-point deficit.
Alford called it “Michigan revisited,” alluding to his team losing a double-digit lead in the second half of a road defeat. Actually, it was a lot of games revisited for a team that has had trouble closing out opponents.
UCLA led Central Arkansas by 17 points … and needed overtime to hold off the Bears.
UCLA led Wisconsin by nine points … and could exhale only after Holiday’s driving layup with nine-tenths of a second left.
UCLA led South Dakota by 24 points … and prevailed after officials ruled that Welsh had tipped an inbounds pass on the final play, preventing the Coyotes from getting off a three-pointer that could have tied the score.
The Bruins hoped they had put their end-of-game troubles behind them when they finished off Kentucky two days before Christmas only to have them resurface in their Pac-12 Conference opener last week against Washington State.
UCLA appeared to be on the way to a comfortable victory before the Cougars’ Carter Skaggs made a flurry of three-pointers to pull his team within two points. It took Holiday hounding Skaggs in the final minutes for the Bruins to pull away for the victory.
The culprits have varied for UCLA late in games. Ball movement has lacked. Turnovers have come in bunches. Free throws have been missed — including 10 of 16 in the second half against Stanford.
Bruins guard Prince Ali stepped to the free-throw line with 18 seconds left in regulation on Thursday, needing to make only one of two shots to give his team a four-point lead. He missed both.
Defense, or the lack thereof, was the biggest factor in the meltdown against Stanford. There were breakdowns in pick-and-roll coverages as well as help situations in which the help never arrived or came too late, providing an opening for uncontested layups and dunks.
“We just gave it away on the defensive end, pretty much,” Holiday said.
Alford’s displeasure could be heard all the way across the arena in the top row where the media sits.
“The tenacity and the nastiness defensively was not there in the second half, and this team has to learn that’s where you win games,” Alford said. “We’re not the super-talented offensive team that we were a year ago, so you can’t just rely [on that].”
UCLA’s offense in the final minutes mostly consisted of isolation plays for Holiday. He made some layups but also seemed to take his team out of the offensive flow that had helped it build a 74-61 lead with nine minutes left.
It was the sort of bad loss that can change the trajectory of a season unless the Bruins rebound quickly. UCLA entered the game with an RPI of 38; it’s now 53.
The Bruins (11-4 overall, 2-1 in Pac-12 play) will face another seemingly overmatched team Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion when they play California (7-8, 1-1). The Bears have an RPI of 168 and are coming off an 80-62 loss to USC that marked their third home defeat by at least 18 points.
Of course, little has come easily for the Bruins this season, particularly on the road.
“I think it’s more of a toughness issue, of understanding how hard it is to win on the road, and that you can’t get up 12, 14 points and relax,” Alford said. “That’s when you’ve got to step on the throat and this team just hasn’t learned that yet.”
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Haas Pavilion, Berkeley
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.