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PACIFIC LIFE PAC-10 TOURNAMENT : COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Sweet 16 dreams abruptly turn sour

Bruins need to find themselves — fast — after loss to Oregon, since they stand to receive less favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament.

March 11, 2011|BILL PLASCHKE

If a conference tournament establishes an identity for next week's Big Dance, well, gulp, ugh, meet your UCLA Bruins.

They will be the awkward kid cowering in the darkest corner. They will be the uncoordinated mope dragged to the middle of the floor. They won't be dancing pretty, and they won't be dancing long.

How could this happen? How could a 22-win Ben Howland team simply fail to show up for a Pac-10 Conference tournament opener against a 16-loss Oregon team?

How could an earnest, disciplined group with visions of a Sweet 16 turn into playground pups who lost their focus, lost their tempers, eventually lost their will and, in one memorable moment, lost their minds by trying to play with six men on the court?

Hint: It didn't work, and some Oregon players had a laughing fit on their bench to prove it.

On a sullen Thursday night at a morose Staples Center, the Bruins weren't just beaten, 76-59, they were humiliated to the point where their placement in next week's NCAA tournament could be historic.

Is there a 17th seed?

"We really, really laid an egg tonight," said Howland, and that's an insult to chickens.

It was arguably the worst loss in Howland's eight seasons here, the kind of stunning mid-March collapse that surely reminded the UCLA faithful of another coach from another era who used to frequently find himself covered in ashes from this sort of wreckage.

No, we've never mentioned their names in the same sentence before, and perhaps it will never happen again but, folks, this was a Steve Lavin sort of loss.

How could this happen? Certainly, the Bruins are a young team with no seniors, and they had been prone to fits of foolishness before, but they entered the tourney with 13 wins in their last 16 games and were considered one of those NCAA tournament teams that nobody wanted to face.

Then, even before the game started, they fell on their face.

"Just started from warmups," said Tyler Honeycutt. "Guys weren't taking, like, game shots, weren't really being focused.... We came in here with a 'too cool' of an attitude."

The game began, and it got even worse, with Oregon attacking and UCLA retreating, Reeves Nelson disappearing, Lazeric Jones wandering, and chaos ensuing.

The tone was set when Oregon reeled off a 10-0 run in the late stages of the first half, thanks in part to a mistake so hard-headed that you usually only see it in football.

After a timeout with five minutes 33 seconds remaining in the half, the Bruins took the floor with six men. Apparently, Nelson was ordered to replace Tyler Lamb during the break, and in those situations the players inform each other of the switch, but either Nelson never told Lamb or Lamb never heard him. Soon the Ducks' E.J. Singler was connecting on two technical-foul free throws to remind them both.

"How did that happen?" Howland said to his assistants sitting behind him on the bench.

Afterward, he was saying the same things after noting that this sort of blunder had never happened to a team that he coached.

"That was embarrassing, that right there was, like, indicative of the night," Howland said. "That that could actually happen is unbelievable."

It never got much better, the first half ending with Oregon's Garrett Sim dribbling through an already-running-to-the-locker-room defense to hit a three-pointer at the buzzer and give the Ducks a 14-point lead.

At the time, the guy whose energy and emotion fuels these Bruins had zero points, and Nelson was never able to get out of his funk, his night essentially ending with 5:38 remaining when he cursed the officials after being knocked to the floor while missing the shot.

The two technical free throws by Singler gave the Ducks an 18-point lead while Nelson plopped down on the bench and cursed himself.

He will need to find his composure before next week. Jones will need to find his leadership after missing eight of 11 shots and getting beat often on defense.

Malcolm Lee, who sometimes could be seen visibly limping on his injured knee, needs to find his strength. Josh Smith, who combined with Nelson to go four for 15 inside while being double-teamed and harassed, needs to find his fire.

All the Bruins will need to find themselves, and quick, because this loss will probably drop them to an eighth or ninth seed in next week's NCAA tournament, which means that if they survive a tough first-round game, they will probably face a top seed playing close to home.

"If it was just this game, obviously, we wouldn't even be invited," said Howland, whose team will nonetheless be sent somewhere, nasty RSVP and all.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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