UCLA ventured into the land of the big biceps Saturday, the rib-cracking screens, the battles for every inch of hardwood.

It thought it was ready for that land last year, when it won 11 of its final 14 games and stormed into the NCAA’s theoretical brackets. In that scenario the Bruins might well have played Ohio State in a first-weekend game. The virus intervened, but they got their chance, in Cleveland, to show they belong in that league. They did that, but then they learned that  belonging is not the same as winning.

UCLA led the 20th-ranked Buckeyes by five early in the second half, and the two were tied 63-63 with six minutes to go. Then the Bruins scored seven more points the rest of the way, missed seven of their final 10 shots, and lost 77-70.

It would have been their first win over a ranked, non-conference opponent since Steve Alford’s Bruins sent down seventh-ranked Kentucky, 83-75, on Dec. 23, 2017. But they didn’t lose because they weren’t good enough. They lost because they weren’t good enough long enough.

“It was a hell of a battle,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We played really well for a long period of time. The intensity was at a high level. In games like that you have to be the tougher team, and they were.”

UCLA displayed some fiber last week when it beat Marquette in Pauley Pavilion. But a long stretch of Pac-12 games, at least at this point, will not demand the same thing an NCAA tournament will.

Sports-Reference.com rates the Pac-12 eighth among conferences. Nobody in the league has a win over a Top 25 team. There is parity, sure, but the Bruins are clear Pac-12 favorites. They will be presented with a larger margin of error in many of those games. The trick will be trying to play within an imaginary, smaller one.

“Jalen Hill didn’t block out on a free throw,” said Cronin, the only member of the Bruin family that spoke with the media afterward on the postgame teleconference. “When that happens, the basketball gods get you.”

Cronin was particularly miffed at back-to-back corner 3-pointers by Eugene Brown, an Ohio State freshman. The second one gave the Buckeyes some separation, at 69-65. At that time UCLA had to run smart offense and maybe find a way to get 3-point production from Johnny Juzang or Jaime Jaquez or somebody, since the Bruins wound up missing nine of 13 from deep.

Instead Juzang missed two 3-pointers, Jaquez didn’t see much of the ball, and Tyger Campbell took too much upon himself, missing a layup and a 3-pointer in the midst of a 1-for-10 day. UCLA had only two field goals from there to the end. Those were a dunked rebound by Hill and a so-what bucket by Cody Riley that created the final score.

Zed Key, another Ohio State freshman, outmuscled UCLA inside for a hoop, but Ohio State didn’t have a field goal in its final 3:53. Key had 11 points and six rebounds in his 22 minutes. He is 6-foot-8 and 245 and played for the Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran team that beat Sierra Canyon last season.

Such monolithic beings are not found on Pac-12 rosters, especially not coming off the bench. But they exist in the East and the South and the Midwest, must be dealt with in March, or whenever the NCAA tournament happens.

“When you’re down three or four or five, under three minutes, you have to get a great shot or get fouled,” Cronin said. “We didn’t work the extra passes. We missed a couple of hard shots at crucial times. You’re in a possession game at that point.”

Jaquez, Campbell and Chris Smith combined to miss 22 of 27 shots, and Smith, UCLA’s most credentialed player coming into the season, was either benched or hard to find in the telling moments.

This was part of the CBS Sports Classic doubleheader series that has brought together UCLA, Ohio State, North Carolina and Kentucky for several years. Originally the Bruins were supposed to play Kentucky, but that got shuffled earlier in the week. They probably would have beaten Kentucky the way North Carolina did (75-63), but the Wildcats are 1-5 and unranked, and John Calipari appears to have picked up some unfinished products from the One-And-Done store.

UCLA would have felt better, temporarily, with such a win, but it wouldn’t have learned nearly as much.

What they learned was that they have about three months, pandemic permitting, to become 40-minute men. It can happen,but who will teach them that is anybody’s guess.

 

 

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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