The large contingent of UCLA fans that included Chancellor Gene Block was roaring inside this tiny gym midway through the second half, chanting the school’s four letters while the Bruins surged into a one-point lead.
In the end there was only silence from those same fans as they glumly filed out of the Lahaina Civic Center.
That momentary lead felt like eons ago after Brigham Young stormed back for a relatively breezy 78-63 victory Monday night in which some worrisome trends continued to crystallize for UCLA in the season’s early going.
The Bruins have trouble staying in front of their man. They are giving up lots of open three-pointers. They are getting outclassed by more veteran, savvy teams.
BYU took advantage of all of those shortcomings while closing the game on a 27-11 run to hand UCLA its first losing streak under coach Mick Cronin.
“We couldn’t finish the game,” Cronin said after appearing in the media room about half an hour after the game ended. “We’re a young team still figuring it out, finding our way, but they made it hard on us so you have to always give the other team credit.”
Losers of two games in a row, the Bruins (4-2) will face Chaminade on Tuesday afternoon in a consolation game, with a possible matchup against No. 3 Michigan State awaiting should UCLA get past the NCAA Division II Silverswords. There’s no guarantee given the way UCLA is playing defense under a coach known for getting his players to stop the other team.
BYU (4-2) shot 62% and made nine of 18 three-pointers, becoming the second consecutive team to make half of its shots beyond the arc against UCLA. The Cougars scored 40 points in the paint.
Guard Jules Bernard came off the bench to score a team-high 16 points for the Bruins, who did not get the sort of bounce-back performance they were seeking after losing to Hofstra by 10 points at home.
“We played for about 30 minutes strong on defense and then we let off the gas,” Bernard said, “so it’s just about sustaining our effort on defense and focusing on what teams do, especially a team like BYU that runs its offense really well.”
Things looked promising for UCLA when Chris Smith made a driving layup to give the Bruins a 52-51 lead with 11 minutes 19 seconds left and they got the ball back, but Cody Riley committed an offensive foul, one of four turnovers that sparked BYU’s game-deciding 10-0 run.
Cronin said he told the team it needed to limit its turnovers to eight or fewer but the Bruins piled up 13.
Smith scored four points in his second consecutive clunker. Point guard Tyger Campbell scored five early points but finished with 11 points in 22 minutes. Guard Prince Ali returned from an apparent ankle injury to score 10 points.
The Bruins shot 45.5% but struggled from the free-throw line, making eight of 15 attempts.
“In the last five years of my career,” Cronin said of the time before arriving at UCLA, “you’d struggle to find a loss where we shot 45%. We’re not just there defensively and [with] rebounding. So our shooting percentage isn’t the issue. On offense, our turnovers are our problem.”
Guard Jake Toolson had 20 points for BYU, which will face Kansas on Tuesday in a semifinal.
Cronin said before the start of the tournament that he had to remind himself that the onus was on him, and not the players, to shepherd the Bruins through their struggles in their first season together. But his players need to do their part as well when things trend in the wrong direction.
“It’s like I told the guys, you have two choices,” Cronin said. “You can quit and go home, make excuses — it seems to be popular in today’s society with young people — or you can stand and fight and learn how to be a guy that can defend, learn how to be a guy that never gets beat, learn how to be a guy that never turns the ball over, learn how to be a guy that remembers that the offense and can execute. You got to stay in the ring and fight.”