Cal Poly's Chris O'Brien blocks David Wear's shot on Sunday… (Jason Redmond / Associated…)
The learning curve just got a lot steeper for UCLA's young basketball team.
So far this season, the Bruins have struggled to find the right mix for a lineup that features four freshmen. They have searched for solutions on offense and defense.
"It's a lot of new pieces," guard Shabazz Muhammad said. "We have to learn how to jell."
On Sunday night, they suffered their toughest lesson yet with a 70-68 loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at Pauley Pavilion.
Playing in front of a sparse home crowd, the No. 11 Bruins failed to maintain an 18-point lead in the second half as the visiting Mustangs buried them under a barrage of three-point shots and putbacks.
"The three-point line can really equalize talent," Mustangs Coach Joe Callero said. "We thought that if we could get it close, maybe we get a bounce, maybe they miss a shot, maybe we make a shot."
Despite all the hurried attempts and defensive breakdowns, UCLA (4-2) had a chance to salvage the night when Jordan Adams snaked inside to tie the score, 68-68.
But with 11 seconds remaining, Bruins sophomore Norman Powell got confused about the score and, thinking his team was behind, committed an intentional foul.
Coach Ben Howland put both hands to his head and Kyle Odister stepped to the line to make two free throws. From there, the Bruins failed to create a good opportunity, heaving a desperation three-point shot.
"That was a very, very tough loss," Howland said. "We're going to watch this game as a team and hopefully learn from our mistakes."
The UCLA coach saw his team struggle to defend past the three-point arc, saying this current group of players might be talented but not terribly athletic.
Howland wondered whether the Bruins might need to play more zone defense. His players had other ideas.
Muhammad talked about letting San Luis Obispo control the boards near the end. Even when the Mustangs missed three-point shots, they were able to grab rebounds and score. Travis Wear focused on a crucial stretch in the second half.
The Mustangs (2-2) had spent all game milking the clock, passing around the perimeter, hoping to shorten the game. That strategy led to a 42-36 victory over USC last season.
UCLA fans did not approve, chanting: "Boring." But the tactic worked again.
While Wear and Adams provided spurts of offense, the Bruins often struggled against a steady diet of zone defense, another early-season weakness.
The Mustangs got scoring from forwards Brian Bennett and Chris Eversley, mixing in a few transition baskets to trail by only 29-27 at halftime.
Then, after UCLA came out strong and opened a 51-33 lead with 12 minutes 21 seconds remaining, the momentum shifted.
"We started making dumb plays," Wear said. "If we'd been more patient, we would have put them away."
Instead, UCLA rushed and Mustangs guard Dylan Royer made two three-point baskets on his way to a game-high 18 points.
The Bruins got 15 points from Muhammad and 14 from Wear, but it wasn't enough. And losing a big lead wasn't the only bad news Sunday.
Earlier in the day, Tyler Lamb announced his plans to transfer. The junior guard, still recovering from preseason knee surgery, was a solid player who did not expect to get the minutes he wanted in a crowded backcourt.
"Tyler was one of our best defenders," Wear said.
Lamb was also a veteran presence on a young team that, judging by Sunday night, needs to grow up in a hurry.