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BILL DWYRE

The bloom is definitely off for UCLA basketball

The Bruins' lost weekend in Arizona makes them longshots to win a fourth straight Pac-10 title, and is sure to make for a long week of practice too.

February 15, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM TUCSON — UCLA had its heart torn out on Valentine's Day.

Arizona turned a basketball game into a sweetheart deal on its home court with an 84-72 drubbing of the Bruins. The final score made it look closer than it really was.

Thursday night, Arizona State beat the Bruins. Saturday, Arizona stomped them. This wasn't a UCLA road trip. It was a disaster in the desert. Against Arizona, the Bruins made it into an FTD game. They phoned it in.

Sadly, for the basketball players in the powder blue from Westwood, there is more pain and suffering right around the corner, and not just Thursday night's crucial encounter with first-place Washington at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA will go to work at Pauley on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and it won't be a bouquet of flowers.

"This will be a gut-check week of practice," said Ben Howland, the perfectionist who coaches the Bruins.

Howland isn't interested in acquiring the habit of losing. For him, two in a row is a death march. He has taken his last three teams to the NCAA Final Four, all of them Pacific 10 Conference champions, and his standards demand nothing less, especially at a school that has won 11 NCAA titles.

Don't be mistaken. His postgame demeanor was not a rant. The jaw was set, the face muscles tight. But he gave credit where credit was due, and Arizona was due lots.

The Wildcats of interim Coach Russ Pennell won their seventh in a row, the last six in the Pac-10, by beating UCLA at what it does best. Can you imagine a team from the school where John Wooden once coached, getting its clock cleaned by a Wooden-esque half-court zone trap and a tear-your-shirt-off attacking defense?

Defense is UCLA's calling card. Howland demands it. Saturday, those demands went unheeded, buried in the mix of too much Arizona zone pressure and too little UCLA poise and pace.

"Their press sped us up too much," Howland said, while acknowledging that this was the same press that the Bruins destroyed in their 83-60 whipping of Arizona on Jan. 15 at Pauley.

"They just did it better," Howland said.

The Bruins had 14 turnovers in the first half alone, 20 in the game. Arizona made eight of its 10 steals in the first half. UCLA's disciplined offense became helter-skelter. Even more remarkable was that, while Arizona was turning UCLA's offense into a disjointed pinball machine, with probing hands and quick feet and rugged bodies, the Bruins shot no free throws in the first half and only seven in the game.

That sort of statistic often brings postgame discussion about the officials, but Howland didn't go there.

"We shot too many three-pointers," he said.

Howland was effusive in his praise of the Wildcats' big three -- Jordan Hill, Nic Wise and Chase Budinger.

The 6-foot-10 Hill played about two feet above the Bruins' 6-9 Alfred Aboya and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, eight of those on the offensive boards.

"He's a monster," Howland said. "He'll be a lottery pick in the NBA draft."

Wise is a foot shorter than Hill, but keeping up with him was like trying to guard a squirrel. He scampered under, over and around the Bruins' defense for 26 points, and Pennell said, "Nic is quiet, but when he sees great players like [UCLA point guard] Darren Collison come in to play, he gets revved up."

Budinger, Arizona's junior star, had 17 points, five steals and five assists and made the play that put UCLA so far on its heels that it never recovered.

With just over 10 minutes to play in the first half, UCLA having somehow survived all the blitzing linebackers, the Bruins put on one of their best defensive stands of the game. They trailed, 24-23, and Arizona couldn't get anything close to a good look at the basket as the shot clock ran down. The ball finally got to Budinger in the deep corner, and when his three-point fling went in at the buzzer, McKale Center erupted as if the shot had just won the NCAA title.

By halftime, the lead was 18 points and would have been 20 if Budinger's layup hadn't rolled off at the buzzer.

From that point, the wild crowd of 14,611 carried its team home in a place that, suffice to say, is tough to play in for visiting teams. This crowd makes those at Pauley look like seven librarians.

To start the game, the Wildcats enter through the student section. During it, the band director not only directs the music but also his band members as to when to wave distracting balloons as opposing players shoot free throws. Trumpet players wander off into the crowd to play and three elderly men in striped referee shirts wander around in sunglasses behind a leader carrying a sign that says: "Three Blind Mice."

At 11:42 of the second half during a timeout, McKale vibrated with the sound of nearly 15,000 people singing, "We will, we will rock you."

By then, they already had.

By then, despite a gutsy comeback attempt by the Bruins that cut the deficit to nine points, UCLA was basically in a game of extended garbage time -- something the Bruins are used to, just not on the receiving end.

Howland stated the obvious when he said Thursday night's game at Pauley would be "the biggest game of the year for us."

It won't even be for first place, because the Huskies lead now by 1 1/2 games.

Nor will Washington State two days later be a walk in the park, or the next two conference games at Stanford and California.

No sweet bites of chocolate left in this season. Just a lot of hard candy.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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