LOS ANGELES -- Until this week's Sports Illustrated hit newsstands, close losses on the road had defined UCLA's basketball season.
The Bruins (17-13, 10-7) have lost five times by three points or fewer and they get a second chance at one of those teams when they face Washington in the regular season finale Saturday at 11 a.m. PT at the Sports Arena. And not only that, but the Bruins have a chance to keep first-place Washington (21-8, 14-3) from sole possession of the Pac-12 title.
"I've lost to Washington every time I've played them so I definitely want to get a win on them," sophomore guard Tyler Lamb said.
The Bruins led, 65-55, with six minutes to play when the teams faced off a month ago in Seattle, but managed only two more baskets in a 71-69 loss. The Bruins have had similar fates in losses at Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona and St. John's. The Bruins had second-half leads in all of those games but couldn't hold on down the stretch. And at Stanford, the Bruins never led, but lost by two.
The Bruins have lost five conference games by a total of 18 points. If the Bruins had won those, the Pac-12 title would be on the line Saturday. If they had won just two of those, they'd be in the running for a top-four spot in the conference and a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. Instead, the Bruins have very little on the line Saturday. They can finish fifth, sixth or seventh, but will have to play the opening round of the conference tournament against USC, Utah or Arizona State.
"It's disappointing," forward David Wear said. "At the same time we just have to prepare and move on and get ready for the tournament. Right now we're just trying to improve our seeding and get the highest seeding we possibly can to put ourselves in a better situation."
It's difficult to say what has kept the Bruins from closing out those close games down the stretch. Certainly free-throw shooting has been an issue. But so has fatigue. The Bruins are playing an eight-man rotation for the most part and Lamb, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson are all averaging over 31 minutes.
"There are a number of factors, but we just didn't finish the game," Wear said.
One thing the Bruins are sure to finish Saturday is their run at the Sports Arena. UCLA has been using the venue as its home court while Pauley Pavilion receives a renovation and while the Bruins have had some success at the arena, going 9-4 there so far, they won't necessarily be sad to leave it.
"It was all right," Wear said. "I'm definitely not going to miss playing at the Sports Arena or staying at hotels downtown for home games. It was a fun place to play. It wasn't that bad and our locker room was really nice. We had a big locker room. That was a plus."
It would also be a plus for UCLA to end the regular season on a high note and head into the Pac-12 tournament with a bit of momentum. Defeating Washington, which has already clinched a share of the conference title, would go a long way in doing those things.
"I think it’d be very good for us, and important," coach Ben Howland said. "Especially against a team that’s in first place, that has already won a share of the league championship."
As to whether it makes a difference if the Bruins finish fifth, sixth or seventh, Howland says the only thing he is concerned with is winning against Washington.
"For us it’s more about playing the best team in our league right now, who’s in first place, and going out and giving our all," Howland said.
NOTE: Howland said that he expected both Jones (ankle) and Joshua Smith (back) to play on Saturday. Both players suffered minor injuries Thursday against Washington State, but Howland expected both to practice Friday afternoon.