There were a half-dozen Bruin legends in the building Saturday night, but this year’s team was unable to replicate their successors’ winning ways.
UCLA men’s basketball (8-8, 1-2 Pac-12) lost 74-63 to USC (13-3, 2-1) at home on Saturday, making this the first time the Bruins fell to the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion since Jan. 13, 2016.
“You definitely don’t want to lose at home; you definitely don’t want to lose to your rivals – we did both tonight,” said junior guard Chris Smith. “I’d say this one stings maybe a little more just because of politics and whatnot, but every loss stings.”
Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes – in addition to more recent alums Earl Watson, Tony Parker and Kevon Looney – were in attendance for the crosstown matchup, but their presence didn’t do UCLA any favors down the stretch.
The Trojans led for the final 34 minutes of the game, but the Bruins were hanging around for the entire first half. USC did not lead by more than five points in the opening frame, but it opened the second half with a 25-13 run to take a 14-point lead with 9:03 left on the clock.
UCLA managed to cut the lead to six over the next five minutes, and the sellout crowd that packed Pauley Pavilion started to get louder than it had all night.
But then USC guard Daniel Utomi answered the Bruins’ surge with a corner 3 and five-star freshman big man Onyeka Okongwu flushed home a standing dunk on the Trojans’ next possession, putting the game mostly out of reach for the Bruins.
A deep triple by guard Jonah Mathews with 1:27 left on the clock only further dashed UCLA’s hopes at a comeback.
“Our defense in the second half was about as bad as it can get,” said coach Mick Cronin. “They had a couple backbreaking 3s at the end of the shot clock, but we actually did play decent defense for 27 seconds.”
The Trojans hit four of their final five shots, shooting 69.6% from the field in the second half after being limited to 33 points on 45.8% shooting in the first. The Bruins, on the other hand, saw their first half shooting percentage of 39.4% fall to 36% in the second.
Cronin said he is done making excuses for his players defensively, and that they have trained too much to justify Saturday’s performance.
“Give up 57% for the game defensively, it’s hard to win,” Cronin said. “Actually, you have no chance of winning.”
Smith led the Bruins with 11 points in the first half, but he shot just 1-of-5 from the field in the second. His 16-point outing still led the way for UCLA, but redshirt sophomore forward/center Jalen Hill’s 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 from the charity stripe was the most efficient performance by a Bruin on Saturday.
The Bruins’ offense stalled down the stretch – hitting just two field goals in the final seven minutes of the game – despite the fact they turned the ball over just once in the second half.
Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali said the offense wasn’t the problem, however.
“Our goal is to give up less than 65, offense isn’t really what we’re worried about,” Ali said. “If they score 62 today, we had 63, we win the game by one point and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
With USC’s 74-point output in a winning effort, UCLA now falls to 0-8 when it allows 74 or more points. The Bruins’ defense limited Okongwu to four points and two rebounds in 23 minutes, but it allowed veteran forward Nick Rakocevic to score 17 and pick up 14 boards in the process.
Four of Rakocevic’s rebounds came on the offensive end, and he converted two of them into second-chance baskets. UCLA lost the battle on the boards for the first time all season, getting outrebounded 35-31 on the night.
Smith said the Bruins’ performance on the defensive end and on the boards emulated their nonconference slate, rather than their road trip last week to open up Pac-12 play.
“I feel like we started off with a great note, and then just regressed back to who we were before the Washington game,” Smith said. “Our defense has regressed, and rebounding – two things that we need to do well in order to win any games.”
UCLA will next take the court Wednesday against Stanford, the lone undefeated team left in Pac-12 play.