When it was over, the UCLA crowd’s halftime booing replaced by quiet resignation over another humiliating defeat, Steve Alford and Dan Guerrero walked toward a doorway leading to the locker room inside one corner of Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins coach and his boss were separated by only a few feet but did not acknowledge each other’s presence, Guerrero stopping to chat briefly with an athletic department official as Alford continued through the doorway. Guerrero soon followed.
Alford might want to hope he doesn’t hear from Guerrero in the coming days because it could signal the end of his five-plus seasons in Westwood.
A season slipping away took another turn for the worse Saturday afternoon, the Bruins’ 73-58 loss to Liberty representing a fourth consecutive defeat and putting Alford in the crosshairs of more than angry fans.
“Liberty y’all,” former UCLA forward Kris Johnson tweeted, alluding to the Flames supposedly being worlds apart from the Bruins in terms of college basketball prestige. “Liberty.”
On Instagram, below a post from the UCLA basketball account showing the final score, former Bruins forward Matt Barnes wrote simply, “Wow.”
In-season firings are rare at UCLA, though it seems as if discontent with Alford has reached a critical mass given the lackluster attendance at Pauley Pavilion and the growing number of notable alumni willing to criticize him publicly.
Guerrero declined to comment through a school official, but Alford had plenty to say after his team compounded the recent embarrassment of losing at home to Belmont, another small program that’s not supposed to challenge the Bruins (7-6).
The Liberty setback represented Alford’s most lopsided home loss since he arrived at UCLA.
“This might be one of the most disappointing games I’ve had,” Alford said. “Trying to reflect back throughout 28 years [of coaching], and the word disappointment of just our team and how we performed. I don’t know the last time I was this disappointed in a team.
“Because it did not look like us at any level as far as how we’ve prepped, how we’ve practiced, how we’ve watched film, things that we’ve done. The execution was extremely poor at both ends. Just very disappointed in how we played.”
Alford wasn’t the only one. Fans from the announced crowd of 7,456 booed the Bruins as they walked off the court at halftime after an early five-point lead turned into a 34-26 deficit amid a flurry of turnovers.
The sloppiness continued throughout the second half, UCLA finishing with 24 turnovers that resulted in 32 points for Liberty (11-4). There were passes into the post that were intercepted, behind-the-back dribbles that were lost and balls that were stripped on drives to the basket. It was just one area in which the Bruins struggled.
“Poor ballhandling, poor passing, poor catching, poor shooting, poor foul shooting,” said Alford, whose team made only six of 22 three-pointers (27.3%) and 12 of 22 free throws (54.5%).
UCLA cut its deficit to six points with 5½ minutes left and appeared to have forced a turnover at midcourt before Bruins forward Kris Wilkes collided with teammate David Singleton and threw the ball back to a Liberty player. The Flames’ Caleb Homesley eventually made a corner three-pointer to spark a 7-0 run that put the game out of reach.
“I guess we just went downhill and lost focus, lost control, lost concentration,” UCLA forward Chris Smith said, “and whenever we tried to get back into it, we only hurt ourselves.”
Wilkes finished with a team-high 14 points but made only five of 16 shots. Center Moses Brown, who collected 11 points and nine rebounds, was the only other Bruin to finish in double figures scoring. Point guard Jaylen Hands finished with a season-low two assists to go with eight points and five turnovers.
Perhaps more worrisome than a flurry of lost games is the notion that UCLA’s young roster appears to be regressing. Alford has repeatedly touched on topics that he intended to address in practice, but little improvement is evident.
“I guess we’ll have to watch on tape and see exactly where those issues are of how we dribble, how we pass, how we catch,” Alford said. “I mean, it’s seventh-grade stuff, but maybe we’ve got to go back to some drills I used to do as a player in middle school.”
Alford said he could almost promise changes in the lineup and how minutes were divvied up among his players with the Bruins less than a week from the start of Pac-12 Conference play.
That is, of course, assuming the changes are still his to make.
Thursday vs. Stanford, 8 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, ESPN — Like the Bruins, the Cardinal are teetering around .500 and have gone 0-3 against nationally ranked opponents. Stanford’s most impressive showing was arguably a 90-84 overtime loss on the road against then-No. 2 Kansas this month.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch