The cramped locker room didn’t hold any answers.
A dozen UCLA basketball players wedged into folding chairs, knees and elbows bumping against neighbors. No one touched the refrigerator jammed with sports drinks and sodas. Voices didn’t rise above a whisper.
As team managers rolled out bags of equipment, players stared at the cinder block walls and tried to make sense of the sudden end to their season in an NCAA tournament play-in game at the University of Dayton Arena.
Plagued by uncharacteristic turnovers and an out-of-sync offense, UCLA lost to St. Bonaventure 65-58 on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately in March, there’s a finality to it,” coach Steve Alford said. “And we’ve reached our finality today.”
A chartered plane had been on call to fly UCLA to Dallas to continue the season. Instead, St. Bonaventure, which hadn’t won a tournament game since 1970, will face sixth-seeded Florida in the first round Thursday.
“We just beat UCLA,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said. “How much prouder can I be?”
That brought an abrupt finish to a season that started with an international incident for the Bruins after three freshman were caught shoplifting during the team’s trip to China. But UCLA (21-12) moved past the incident and a shorthanded roster to advance to the tournament for the fourth time in the last five years under Alford.
Then they ran into St. Bonaventure on a snowy evening in the middle of Ohio.
Inside the Bruins’ locker room, the loss hung heavy in the stuffy, sweat-filled air. Players struggled to find an explanation for the forgettable performance in front of an arena packed with busloads of noisy supporters of the Bonnies (26-7).
UCLA seemed to be in shock, digesting another surprise after the tournament selection committee unexpectedly banished the Bruins to the play-in game for the first time in school history.
Problems started before tipoff. Freshman Kris Wilkes, averaging 13.8 points, didn’t start after being late for a team bus Monday. The school’s band wasn’t on hand, either, left in Los Angeles because of logistics due to the short notice for the game and finals.
“We knew how tough they were going to be,” said junior point guard Aaron Holiday, the Pac-12 Conference’s leading scorer who matched his average with 20 points. “I felt like we matched them pretty well. We just turned the ball over too much.”
UCLA had 20 turnovers, tying its season high, including 10 by the normally sure-handed Holiday. The Bruins almost eclipsed their season average of 11.8 turnovers per game in the first half when they gave the ball away 11 times.
The mistakes, many of them unforced, threw the offense off-kilter and led to UCLA making just two field goals in the final 14 minutes of the first half. And the Bruins never found a way to take advantage of their size advantage over the Bonnies, who have just one player taller than 6-foot-6.
“We have to go back and really think about how we can do better as a team,” freshman Jaylen Hands said.
Thanks to relentless defense by Holiday, the Bruins held St. Bonaventure senior Jaylen Adams, the co-player of the year in the Atlantic 10 Conference, to two-for-16 shooting. Junior Courtney Stockard, recovering from a hamstring injury, picked up the slack with 26 points.
After Holiday hit two free throws to tie the score at 58 with 1:11 left, Adams responded with a jump shot. But Holiday turned the ball over three times in the final 29 seconds. The chants of “Let’s go, Bona!” grew louder with each mistake.
Adams added three free throws in the final seconds to end any chance of a late rally by UCLA. The celebration by supporters from the tiny school near Buffalo, N.Y., started in earnest. Dancing. Chest bumps. Enough noise to make your ears hurt.
This is what happens in March.
“So it hurts. It stings,” Alford said. “It will sting even more, and I’ve done it enough now, 27 times, that that finality, when you don’t get to coach that group again … and now that comes to an end very quickly.”
Not far away, a group of St. Bonaventure cheerleaders sent text messages and took selfies.
“Let’s get on the plane,” one said, “to Texas.”
But the Bruins are headed home.