Now it’s getting dire.
UCLA, needing a road win to bolster its sagging NCAA tournament chances, completed one large comeback but not a second during an 80-76 loss to Colorado on Sunday afternoon at the Coors Events Center.
Trailing by 10 early in the second half, the Bruins briefly surged ahead before faltering amid turnovers, negligible transition defense and a repeated inability to guard the three-point line.
UCLA nearly came all the way back again after falling behind by 14 with less than five minutes to play. The Bruins closed to within four with 15 seconds left and got the ball back, but Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes missed three-pointers before the ball went out of bounds to Colorado.
The Buffaloes were so confident they had the game won that they inserted senior walk-on Josh Repine for the last three seconds so he could play in the final home game of his career.
The Bruins were left to walk off the court expressionless after what felt like a sendoff for their NCAA tournament hopes.
“Nobody’s thrilled with it or happy about it, so I hope it hurts,” coach Steve Alford said after the Bruins (19-10 overall, 10-7 Pac-12) dropped into a tie with Utah for fourth in the conference. “We’ve got a good group of guys who have been fighting all year, so I’m sure it hurts.”
Now the Bruins likely need to beat USC on Saturday at the Galen Center and win a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament to make the tournament that really matters. Lose to the Trojans, and the Bruins might have to win the conference tournament to keep playing meaningful games.
Then again, improbable history could repeat itself. UCLA’s resume is fairly similar to the one that got the Bruins into the NCAA tournament during the 2014-15 season when some didn’t even consider them on the bubble. That team got in with a 20-13 record after going 11-7 in the Pac-12 and advancing to the semifinals of the conference tournament.
These Bruins share a more unsettling similarity: Their defensive efficiency entering the game Sunday was No. 118 nationally, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, the same ranking UCLA held when it last missed the NCAA tournament in 2015-16.
It didn’t figure to improve after the Bruins became the first team to allow Colorado (16-13, 8-9) to reach 80 points since Washington State in mid-January. The Buffaloes shot only 41.4% — a tick worse than UCLA’s 41.5% — and made the same number of threes (14) as the Bruins, but won largely because they took 25 free throws and made 18; UCLA took 12 and made eight.
The Bruins also expended lots of energy with their first big comeback, leaving little in reserve.
“When you’re down 12, 13, 14, whatever it was, and you battle all the way back, that takes a lot out of you,” Alford said.
UCLA took a 56-54 lead midway through the second half after a 16-4 run that featured three-pointers from GG Goloman and Wilkes as well as a three-point play from Wilkes.
It wouldn’t last. Some of the lowlights as Colorado went on a 17-1 push included a Chris Smith turnover leading to Dominique Collier (19 points) making a three, the Bruins mostly watching as Buffaloes guard McKinley Wright went in for a transition layup, and UCLA’s Aaron Holiday committing a turnover only seconds after a timeout.
Big games from Holiday (21 points, six assists, six rebounds) and Wilkes (20 points) weren’t enough to keep the Bruins from getting swept in the season series.
UCLA fell to 2-6 in Pac-12 road games this season and 18-26 in conference road games in Alford’s five seasons, largely because of a lack of sustained urgency and defensive lapses that the team doesn’t seem to know how to fix.
“That effort, that mind-set that we’re about to lose this game that we had in that last three to four minutes, we’ve just got to play like that the whole game,” Wilkes said. “I just think it kicks in too late for us a lot of times.”
Saturday at USC, 7:15 p.m., Galen Center, TV: ESPN — The Bruins toppled their crosstown rival 82-79 in the first meeting this season and need another victory to enhance their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch