AUSTIN, Texas — The stands emptied right along with UCLA’s hopes of continuing in the NCAA Tournament. The game clock, on the other hand, just kept ticking.
The Bruins trailed the Minnesota Golden Gophers by 23 with more than four minutes left. It was abundantly clear to the few people left at Frank Erwin Center late Friday night that an era of UCLA basketball was going to end almost as quickly as it began.
A smattering of blue-clad fans stood to applaud coach Ben Howland as many wondered aloud whether he had coached his last game at UCLA, an 83-63 loss.
“No comment,” Howland said when asked about his future after the game.
Freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad – who was the center of attention earlier Friday when a report proved his family had lied about his age – drove to the hoop for a meaningless layup attempt as time expired. It glanced off the opposite side of the rim.
“It is hard to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Muhammad said after what was likely his last game in a Bruin uniform.
Larry Drew II, the team’s lone senior, was spared from the final 43 seconds of the blowout. Howland subbed him out before he made his way down the sideline, embracing every coach and player along the way. His rocky college basketball journey had come to a close.
“It’s definitely not how I envisioned it ending,” Drew said.
A season that began with so much promise ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with one of UCLA’s most dismal performances of the season. The shorthanded No. 6-seeded Bruins struggled on both ends of the floor and couldn’t keep pace with the No. 11-seeded Golden Gophers.
Minnesota (21-12) applied full-court pressure defense to get UCLA (25-10) out of its transition game, forcing the Bruins into 15 turnovers. The No. 24 Bruins couldn’t match the Golden Gophers’ 11-player bench. Five UCLA players finished with two or more fouls.
To make matters worse, UCLA picked the wrong time to have its worst shooting night of the year. The Bruins shot just 31.7 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from 3-point range.
“We had a couple wide open shots that we didn’t knock down and it kind of snowballed,” Howland said.
The Golden Gophers couldn’t miss. They shot over 50 percent from the field and beyond the arc. When UCLA chopped the Minnesota lead to five, sophomore guard Andre Hollins drained two 3-pointers to regain a double-digit cushion.
Ironically, Howland’s team overcame its season-long struggle in the rebounding column in its final outing against one of the best rebounding teams in the country – a small victory in an otherwise ugly game.
Howland refused to discuss his job status in the postgame press conference, instead choosing to focus on the improvement his team made over the course of the year.
“As much as it hurts, as sad as we are, I’m not going to let this diminish what a great season these kids provided,” he said.