To qualify for the Final Four, UCLA’s offensive woes must be addressed.
The shot clock about to expire, David Singleton heaved the ball from a step or two inside of the half-court line, his effort striking the top of the backboard.
UCLA was desperate.
UCLA was lost.
On this night, the result was secondary to the details.
The part about No. 8 UCLA dropping a game at USC was nothing new, the Bruins now having lost in each of their last five visits to Galen Center.
What was alarming about the 77-64 defeat Thursday was how their offense looked.
This wasn’t a Final Four offense.
This certainly wasn’t a championship offense.
“We’re no juggernaut,” coach Mick Cronin said.
The Bruins were as short on ideas. They didn’t move the ball. They didn’t move off the ball. If they weren’t settling for jumpers, they were forcing up shots.
They’re not winning six games at the NCAA tournament unless they find more proficient ways to score.
Consecutive losses in late January rarely offer reasons to be alarmed, but what the Bruins are dealing with now feels like more than a cold stretch.
The defeats could be a reflection of who they really are.
Before its come-from-ahead defeat to its crosstown rival, UCLA dropped a 58-52 decision at Arizona that ended its 14-game winning streak.
Cronin has work to do.
The Bruins went into halftime with a 37-25 advantage, only to shoot 29.6% from the field in a disastrous final 20 minutes. The 27 points they scored in the second half was matched by USC guard Boogie Ellis alone.
They were discombobulated to where they did things completely out of the character, the game marking the first in which they had more turnovers than their opponents.
“Feel like we’re missing the open guys, holding the ball a little bit too long,” senior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said.
Jaquez and point guard Tyger Campbell will finish their UCLA careers without ever having won at Galen Center.
Jaquez was an efficient five for 10 from the field and finished with a team-high 15 points but was unable to develop any kind of rhythm.
Campbell scored 10 points in the first half but didn’t make a single field goal in the second.
UCLA’s best defensive player, Jaylen Clark missed all seven of his shots, his offensive troubles explaining why Cronin played him for only 11 minutes in the second half.
Freshman forward Adem Bona completely overpowered USC’s front line, but the Bruins couldn’t get him the ball. Bona was limited to seven points and only one shot in the second half.
Cronin is typically unafraid to publicly voice his constructive criticism of players, but he decided on a gentler approach after this defeat.
“We play freshmen,” the coach said. “We’re far from a juggernaut. We’ve got a really good team. There’s a lot of good teams. Great environment. Give the other team some credit. You want me to come in here and beat my team up?
“Guys played great in the second half. Give the Trojans credit.”
Cronin deserved a share of the blame, USC coach Andy Enfield once again adjusting better than Cronin did after halftime. In their earlier meeting at Pauley Pavilion, the Trojans erased an 18-point Bruins lead, UCLA winning the game on a late three-pointer by Clark.
“Their defense was great in the second half,” Cronin said. “They made it a street fight, the refs swallowed their whistles and we didn’t respond.”
Down by two points with three minutes remaining, the Bruins were in position to win the game because of their own defense.
Their halftime lead was built on separate 11-0 and 10-0 runs in which they smothered the Trojans. When Ellis was knocking down contested shots and Galen Center was rocking in the second half, the Bruins made key stops that kept the game within their reach.
When Cronin showed up in Westwood four years ago, he made immediately made clear what he was about: defense, defense and more defense.
He didn’t want his players to be concerned about how many points they were scoring or how many shots they were taking. He said players who didn’t defend wouldn’t play.
The philosophy has transformed UCLA, the Bruins reaching the Final Four two years ago and nationally ranked in the top 10 for most of last season.
The approach works — to a degree.
If Cronin wants his team to reach the same summit that John Wooden’s and Jim Harrick’s reached, he’ll to have to teach his players how to play on the other end of the court.