Tony Parker sat on the bench, still without his warmup sweats, still holding out hope that he might return to the game. He exited with more than six minutes remaining. But the minutes ticked by in UCLA’s 85-78 loss to Washington State on Sunday, and Parker sat … and sat.
He never reentered.
The first Pac-12 trip for UCLA (9-6, 0-2) probably will be its easiest. Washington State and Washington, which beat UCLA on Friday, are the only conference teams outside the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) top 100.
The Bruins took the opportunity and spoiled it. On Sunday, they came out flat defensively, “soft,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford called in repeatedly, and were whipped in transition.
“This is the most discouraged we’ve been,” Alford said. “Tonight, I just didn’t like our effort or passion at all.”
Parker’s performance was emblematic, perhaps his worst of the season. He mustered seven points and six rebounds, the first time he hasn’t reached double digits in at least one of those categories since November, when he played 11 minutes against Nevada Las Vegas.
Afterward, Alford insisted he’d taken the unusual step of benching Parker because the Bruins were down 12. They needed to press.
And if Parker had played better?
“Had he and others played better,” Alford said, “we wouldn’t have been down 12.”
There was plenty of blame to go around. Alford said he liked the offensive effort of Isaac Hamilton, who scored 27 points, a season high. He found positives in the effort of reserve guard Noah Allen, who played rare minutes in crunch time.
As for everyone else, Alford said, “we were lethargic for whatever reason with no energy, no passion.”
Washington State had struggled in its Pac-12 opener against USC but had no trouble scoring against UCLA. It shot 55.4% from the field. The Cougars bench scored 31 points. Forward Josh Hawkinson, a starter, scored 20.
The Bruins committed only nine turnovers but were still thrashed in transition.
“They made about 25-plus layups,” Hamilton said.
Washington State turned the easy baskets into a four-point lead at halftime. By the midway point of the second half, when Que Johnson banked a desperation three-pointer as the shot clock expired, the game was all but over. Washington State led by 11, and UCLA could hardly manage a stop.
The loss, to the team picked last in the conference by Pac-12 media members, prolongs a vexing trend. Against teams such as Kentucky and Gonzaga, UCLA has played with intensity. Then the intensity vanishes.
“There’s no explanation for that,” center Thomas Welsh said. “There’s no excuse for that.”
Alford is searching for answers. Was the team worn down by two overtimes on Friday against Washington?
“Well if we are, that’s just a soft mental approach,” Alford said.
Has it struggled in front of sparse crowds?
If it has, Alford said, that’s “another soft approach.”
Alford said he was most frustrated by UCLA’s struggles on the road.
After a win over Gonzaga in December, the Bruins thought they had solved their road problems. They’re more experienced now, players said. Then, on Sunday, UCLA’s two most experienced players sputtered. Parker was sloppy and tentative at the rim. Bryce Alford failed to score double digits for just the third time this season.
And so the road malaise returned at the wrong time. In what has already shown itself to be a deep, punishing league, UCLA has dug a hole.
“Now it becomes a very long, tough road,” Steve Alford said.