Reporting from New York
The game had been over for more than 20 minutes, and Lazeric Jones still seemed unsure of himself.
The UCLA junior guard and his teammates had been repeatedly beaten by Villanova's breakneck backcourt tandem of Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns, a blur unlike anything the Bruins had experienced in three season-opening victories over mid-major teams.
"I tried, I guess," Jones said. "I didn't do a great job at it. I guess we have to go back in practice and correct some things."
The list of fixes will be a long one after the seventh-ranked Wildcats handed the Bruins an 82-70 loss Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden in a semifinal of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
UCLA shot poorly in the first half, committed too many fouls in the second and missed four consecutive free throws when the Bruins had whittled a 15-point halftime deficit to six with 7 minutes 53 seconds remaining.
"They are a fine team and we'll get better with experience," Bruins Coach Ben Howland said. "Lazeric's playing in a big game really for the first time against a top-10 team. … We have to learn from it and bounce back."
Villanova (5-0) made 17 of 20 free throw attempts in the second half, keeping the Bruins from getting uncomfortably close. Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl, scouting the game from press row in advance of Friday's championship, got up and left with the Wildcats leading by 11 with 1:24 to go.
UCLA (3-1) will play Virginia Commonwealth (3-1) Friday in a consolation game.
The Bruins aren't playing for a title in large part because they couldn't contain Fisher (26 points) and Wayns (19), who repeatedly drove for easy baskets during a first half in which the Wildcats took a 15-point lead and delighted the pro-Villanova crowd.
UCLA's best shooters struggled to make shots. Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, who came into the game shooting 75%, made only four of 10.
"I take responsibility for not shooting well," said Nelson, who nonetheless logged his third consecutive double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
"I thought I got fouled on probably three of the shots I missed, but the refs didn't see it that way."
UCLA junior guard Malcolm Lee scored 13 points in his return from a sprained left ankle but struggled with his shooting touch, making three of nine shots.
Back in the starting lineup after being sidelined for most of the previous two games, Lee looked particularly out of sorts in the opening minutes, missing a jumper from one baseline and then the other. He misfired on all four of his first-half shots.
Villanova scored the game's first eight points, but the Bruins remained within striking distance by finding each other for easy baskets.
Nelson whipped a pass through defenders to Brendan Lane for a dunk and then Lane lobbed an over-the-top pass to Joshua Smith for another dunk.
But then UCLA started getting sloppy, committing turnover after turnover as Villanova closed the half on a 14-2 run.
The key was Wayns, who repeatedly burned Jones for layups, increasing what had been a three-point Villanova lead with 41/2 minutes left in the half to a 44-29 advantage at intermission.
"Wayns really hurt us at the end of the half," Howland said, "going left — the way we knew he was going to go — two times in a row."
It was indicative of a game in which the Bruins knew what was coming but were powerless to stop it.