UCLA’s starters walked slowly to the bench, headed for the only available reprieve when they left the game for a final time with a little less than three minutes to play.
The Bruins had waved the white flag long before then.
In what might have been its most listless showing of the season, UCLA doubled down on disappointment during a 93-64 loss to Cincinnati on Wednesday night at a rollicking Fifth Third Arena.
The Bruins followed one bad showing with another, getting hammered by the Bearcats only four days after losing at home to Belmont.
It was difficult to remember that UCLA (7-4) once led by eight points in the game’s early going before Cincinnati (10-2) went on a 28-4 run and extended its advantage to as many as 31 points in the second half.
“We stopped putting our foot on the pedal and we just let it up,” said Bruins forward Kris Wilkes, whose 21 points were not nearly enough to keep the game competitive. “We got down and it’s real tough coming back from a team [up] 15-plus at their home with the crowd and everything.”
Fans from the sellout crowd of 12,689 chanted “Just like football!” in the final minutes, alluding to the Bearcats’ victory over the Bruins in September at the Rose Bowl.
With the game long decided, UCLA coach Steve Alford walked past halfcourt to shake hands with Cincinnati counterpart Mick Cronin a few seconds before the final buzzer. Bruins center Moses Brown walked off the court with a towel wrapped around his head.
There was plenty to be sullen about.
UCLA’s ball movement stagnated again after the opening minutes and its defense was just a suggestion, the Bruins allowing the Bearcats to shoot 52.4% and make 12 of 21 three-pointers (57.1%). Cincinnati guard Jarron Cumberland scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half to help the Bearcats build a 48-31 lead at the game’s midpoint.
Wilkes said UCLA’s five bench players, who scored a combined eight points, did not bring the needed intensity. “I’m not saying the bench came in lackadaisical,” Wilkes said, “but a lot of them haven’t played a road game and just coming in, they’ve got to bring the same energy that everybody else is bringing. … I don’t think we all came to play and it showed.”
About an hour after the Bruins had been finished being put through the wringer, the spin cycle started in a basement hallway outside their locker room.
Alford pointed out that six of his 10 players were appearing in their first true college road game, saying they got rattled by what the Bearcats had touted as the grand opening of their new building even though it was the eighth home game of the season. Cincinnati trotted out former coach Bob Huggins at halftime during a celebration of its former Final Four teams.
“I’ve tried telling them, that’s what UCLA across the chest does, and so you’re going to get everybody’s best, that’s just the way it is,” Alford said. “That’s the beauty of playing at a place like UCLA is that you’re always going to get everybody’s best shot, so you have to prepare that way.”
Alford went on to indicate that he wanted his players to put in more work besides formal team practices.
“If you lose, you get in the gym on your day off and you figure things out, not wait and get in the gym when we meet with you,” Alford said. “It’s, you’ve got to do things as a player to figure things out. It’s not an AAU game where you’re going to get beat and you play again at night or you get to play another game the next day. It’s a totally different animal and guys are just going through it for the first time, they’re trying to learn that.”
Asked if he was saying his players were not putting in the needed work, Alford said, “No, I’m not saying that. I’ve got to get them mandatory days off, so when I give them a mandatory day off, that’s what they do. All I can do is, I know what I did” as a player.
Alford said the team was still searching for leaders with junior shooting guard Prince Ali the only upperclassmen who’s currently playing; junior power forward Alex Olesinski could return as soon as late next week.
Wilkes appeared to be trying to shepherd the Bruins late in the game, holding up his arms from the bench in an attempt to get his teammates to do the same while they were on defense. Wilkes agreed with Alford’s opinion about players needing to take a more active role in their improvement.
“With losses like this, losses like Belmont,” Wilkes said, “maybe we need to get in the gym more as a whole team and have more team meetings and discuss what’s really going on because it’s not anything with the coaches, it’s just we’ve got to understand the game more, we’ve got to look at our notebooks and do what they say.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch