It was an opportunity squandered, which was the worst part for Pepperdine in an 85-83 loss Saturday to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
Although the Waves could have focused on many deficiencies in their performance (defense, rebounding, attacking a zone, etc.), failing to seize the moment in a showcase game topped the list.
They had hoped to make a statement in Westwood as part of their strong start, but UCLA was under the spotlight too.
The Bruins were determined to deliver more of what Coach Ben Howland demanded after a disappointing performance in the Wooden Classic, and freshman point guard Jordan Farmar made sure they didn't waste their chance, spinning and scoring the game-winner on a driving bank shot in the lane with 4.7 seconds left.
Alex Acker's miss on a desperation shot at the buzzer capped a wasted game for Pepperdine, which lamented the one that got away.
"Certainly it's a big game for us and it hurts to lose," Pepperdine Coach Paul Westphal said. "It's not a make-or-break game as far as the NCAA tournament or conference ... but this stuff matters."
Especially for a school such as Pepperdine, playing in the Southland shadow of UCLA and USC. The Waves were 7-1 and had won seven in a row after an 86-78 victory over Nevada Las Vegas on Wednesday at Firestone Fieldhouse, having matched their best start since the 1985-86 season.
Defeating UCLA would have equaled Pepperdine's top mark to open a season since 1975-76, and a road victory would have been especially impressive considering the potential distraction of their coach's situation.
Westphal (USC class of '72) has been mentioned among the candidates for the USC job, which opened Monday when Athletic Director Mike Garrett fired Henry Bibby four games into the coach's ninth season.
Westphal did his best to minimize the buzz about his career possibilities, but the Waves talked among themselves.
"I know I'm not going to be here next year, but my concern is for the younger guys who will be here," said standout senior forward Glen McGowan, who scored a team-high 24 points Saturday.
"I just told them to stay focused. Whatever happens next year happens next year. I could see it bothering players because a lot of guys came here because of Coach, but all you can do is just focus on right now."
The Waves could also focus more on defense.
McGowan and junior guard Acker (19 points) have the look of future pros, displaying why some coaches believe Pepperdine has more talent than No. 25 Gonzaga, which the Waves could battle for the West Coast Conference title.
But the Waves need to get tougher when they don't have the ball. The Bruins had too many good scoring opportunities after Pepperdine took an 81-76 lead on Jesse Pinegar's three-point basket with 1:43 to play. In fairness to the Waves, Farmar closed his dazzling 25-point performance with a series of clutch shots, but Westphal acknowledged defense was an issue.
"We let them score virtually every time down the floor in the last 2 1/2 minutes," Westphal said. "They made the plays down the stretch and we didn't."
That pleased UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who wasn't sure what to expect from a lineup that included freshman guards Farmar and Arron Afflalo and swingman Josh Shipp, starting in place of injured senior forward Dijon Thompson, the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
The Bruins played soft in a 74-64 loss to Boston College last Sunday in the Wooden Classic, prompting Howland to publicly call out 7-footers Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins.
Fey responded with 13 points and six rebounds and Hollins had six points and five rebounds, helping the Bruins, outrebounded in their previous three games, to a 41-23 advantage on the boards. Howland said Shipp earned a more significant role after a 15-point, 12-rebound performance that impressed the visitors.
"We knew coming into the game that these freshmen were going to be a force," McGowan said. "They're some of the better freshmen in the country and they're a great group together. To be so young, they're ahead of their time."
This season still could be Pepperdine's time.
"They're a very good team, so it is a big win," Howland said. "They're dangerous. They have a lot of guys who could start" in the Pacific 10 Conference.