TUCSON, Ariz.--If this was UCLA's most important game of the year, the Bruins didn't handle it very well.
Arizona soundly defeated UCLA, 85-74, in a battle for second place in the Pac-10 Conference Thursday night in a nationally-televised game at the McKale Center, delivering a strong message that maybe a third-place finish is about the best these Bruins can do.
Arizona (17-4, 6-2) seemed to be a step quicker and more athletic at every position, often leaving the Bruins (13-7, 6-2) in the dust. UCLA compounded its problems with an off night shooting and the result was a mediocre-looking team playing on its biggest stage of the season and one that now finds itself in must-win mode for pretty much the rest of the season.
Five observations from the game:
1 UCLA had no answer for Arizona forward Derrick Williams
The Bruins aren't the first team to struggle guarding Williams and they won't be the last, but it became pretty clear early on that the Bruins had nobody to stop the 6-8, 241-pound sophomore who is projected to be an NBA lottery pick should he leave school.
He had 22 points on seven of 10 shooting, including a highlight reel of dunks that surely will be shown over and over on SportsCenter. He's big and quick, a combination that thwarted UCLA, who could cou;dn't contain him inside or outside. Williams made two three-pointers.
UCLA center Joshua Smith was too big to guard him, forward Reeves Nelson was too slow and forward Tyler Honeycutt was too small.
"He plays the five but he’s more of a four or a three, so coming off ball screens it’s hard to get back to him when he’s hitting jump shots like that and driving to the basket," UCLA guard Lazeric Jones said. "He’s a very good player. We just have to next time try to figure out a way to try and stop him somehow."
2UCLA's defense was suspect all around
Arizona really hurt UCLA in transition. The Wildcats were quick off of missed shots and made, getting down the floor faster than any UCLA player and routinely finding open paths to the basket for easy layups.
Other times, Arizona players simply blew past UCLA defenders off the dribble, effectively using screens that seemed to confuse UCLA players. Arizona shot 52% for the game and 60.9% in the second half.
"They just had a good scheme," Nelson said. It started with Derrick Williams. He just took advantage of his mismatch...It started with that and after that they got confidence and they hit their open shots and everything. They shot 52%, that’s all you really need to say."
3Lazeric Jones lost his cool
Jones is developing into a leader on this team, but if he is to take full command, he needs to avoid games such as he had Thursday. It was just that he went 0-7 from the field and didn't score a point--the Bruins have overcome such performances before.
The trouble was he let the frustration of a poor game get to him when he threw and elbow at Arizona's Kyle Fogg and was called for a technical foul. At the time, Arizona held a 47-39 lead, but extended it to 51-39 after the foul.
That started a 20-7 Arizona run that gave the Wildcats a 64-46 lead, the largest deficit UCLA has faced this season.
"Zeek’s technical foul...was obviously a key juncture," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. "We just have to have better mental toughness than that to react to whatever bump or whatever happened."
Jones said he apologized to Fogg and said he was disappointed that his actions changed the momentum of the game, firing up Arizona's already vocal home crowd.
"Our team was really trying to fight back and I didn’t want to get upset with that and bring my teammates down, but stuff happens," Jones said. "I’ll try to correct some things."
4Poor shooting was too much to overcome
First off, Reeves Nelson had a fantastic game--maybe the best game of the year. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds and made 10 of 12 shots, single-handedly keeping the Bruins in the game during the first half.
The rest of the team made 14 of 46 shots from the field. That's 30.4%. And from long-range it was worse. The Bruins were two of 15 on three-point attempts.
UCLA made a couple of furious rally to get back in the game, pulling to within eight points with 6:07 to play and nine with 1:12 to play, but missed three-point attempt after three-point attempt that would have kept their rallies going. Instead, Arizona pulled away.
"We were making a little comeback and it just kind of faded away," said Malcolm Lee, who made one of five three-point attempts. "We couldn’t get it back down."
Even the inside players struggled. Joshua Smith, who hasn't taken a shot from outside the lane all season, made only three of nine shots.
"I was getting a little sped up. I have to slow down and pump fake. These guys tell me to pump fake all the time. I shot 3-for-9, and I can remember all six of my misses were quick shots. I've been shooting the ball quick all year. This isn't just something that popped up today. It's one of those things I have to work on."
5UCLA has to shake this loss off, and fast
This loss ended a four-game win streak for the Bruins, who have stung together losses this season. Of their six previous losses, four came in one streak and the other two came in back-to-back games.
If UCLA is to get back in the Pac-10 race, they can ill afford to let this loss turn into a streak.
"We’re not going to let this get us down," Nelson said. "We’re going to learn from it. We don’t want to leave here 0-2 on the road because that’s not good for us at all so we’re just going to regroup and come back and play hard on Saturday."
Lee said this loss hurt because it was for second place in the Pac-10, but that the Bruins know they are in a must-win game Saturday at Arizona State.
"Although this game was big, this game is over and our next game is the biggest," he said. "Last year we came to the desert and left 0-2 so we just got to get ready for Arizona State. We can’t compound a loss with a loss because that’s just going to separate us from Arizona."