The Bruins were well aware they would be facing heavy defensive pressure Saturday.
That doesn’t mean they were ready to handle it.
UCLA (7-3) fell 77-63 on Saturday to No. 25 Cincinnati (9-2), having never recovered from a sloppy first half in which the Bruins turned the ball over 15 times and surrendered an 18-0 run.
“Before the game we talked about it – they force teams to turn the ball over with the pressure that they bring,” said freshman guard Kris Wilkes. “We went into the game with the mindset that we wouldn’t let that happen, but unfortunately that’s what happened in the first half.”
The Bearcats racked up 19 points off turnovers in the opening half, with their full-court defensive pressure wearing down the Bruins. Over the final nine minutes of the first half, the Bruins endured two different stretches in which they turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions.
“I think we went seven minutes without scoring a point,” said coach Steve Alford. “Without watching the tape, in those seven minutes, we probably had a bucket load of turnovers, so you’re not giving your offense a chance. … And they scored a lot of their points because of our miscues offensively.”
The first half – with its fast pace and slew of UCLA turnovers – went almost exactly how Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin wanted it to.
Knowing that UCLA was playing short-handed due to the indefinite suspension of freshman forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, the Bearcats aimed to speed up the game and tire out the Bruins – especially their two stars, junior guard Aaron Holiday and senior center Thomas Welsh.
“We were trying to wear down Holiday and take away his legs,” Cronin said. “Also, with the pressure, we thought we could get Big Tom running up and down the floor and it would get him tired.”
Holiday and Welsh, who entered the day averaging a combined 31.3 points per game, tallied just five between them in the first half – all by Holiday.
Welsh was held scoreless in the period as the Bearcats routinely double-teamed him in the post.
“They did double him in the first half – and then I thought he started rushing things,” Alford said. “And we couldn’t get him the ball early enough to get him going. It was probably 14, 15 minutes maybe before he got a shot. That’s too long for our offense not to get him a shot.”
It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Holiday, who had three turnovers in the first half, attributed some of those errors to trying to force the ball to Welsh even when Cincinnati pressured him heavily.
“They played (Welsh) well down low,” Holiday said. “I was trying to get him involved and that was really where my turnovers were, trying to pass it to him so we have to figure it out.”
Aside from the sloppy first half, UCLA showed plenty of positive signs in battling against a Cincinnati team that is ranked No. 11 in the country in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings.
The rebounding battle was dead-even, an impressive feat for the Bruins considering the Bearcats are No. 20 in the nation in total rebounding percentage.
“This is a great rebounding team,” Wilkes said. “We tied them on rebounds. … To do that, I think that’s pretty great.”
Half-court defense was also a strong point for UCLA. Though the points off turnovers marred the Bruins’ overall defensive efficiency, they held up fairly well when they could slow the Bearcats down.
And UCLA’s effective field-goal percentage was 50.9 percent, well above the 43.0 percent mark Cincinnati is allowing on the season – the 12th-best in the nation.
“Really proud of our effort,” Alford said. “I just thought the difference was turnovers.”
It’s the second straight game that the Bruins have struggled to hang onto the ball. They gave it up 20 times in the loss at Michigan on Dec. 6.
“If we could take back the second half of Michigan and the first half here against Cincinnati, just in the area of turnovers, I think we’d be sitting in a different position,” Alford said. “Those are things we’ve really got to correct and shape up.