For a while there, for a matter of three halves (two against Pepperdine and in the first half against Texas), it appeared Ben Howland might have been finding some answers.
Travis Wear and David Wear, playing the four and the five, had played well, and UCLA's three-guard perimeter lineup of Jerime Anderson, Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb were solid. At the very least, they were a considerable improvement defensively.
But when the lights went out at the Sports Arena late in the first half, the lights never came back on for the Bruins.
UCLA was leading the Longhorns at the time of the blackout, 30-19, and then, the entire game changed, and Texas went on a 23-10 run to take the lead five minutes into the second half. There wasn't a flicker of life for the Bruins from then on out, and Texas continued to get stronger throughout the second half.
What happened? A combination of a few factors.
UCLA's defense went in the tank. It had held Texas to 41% shooting in the first half, and then allowed 71% in the second. The Longhorns did make some offensive adjustments, spreading out the court, and allowing freshman point guard Myck Kabongo to penetrate and create (he finished with 13 points and 8 assists). But it was mostly UCLA's defense breaking down, and it looked significantly from fatigue. The Wears, Lamb, Jones and Anderson had played defense with a great amount of energy BTB (Before the Blackout), but then looked tired the rest of the way. The Wears were very good at hedging and helping on defense BTB, but then struggled after it. Tyler Lamb had held Texas's big-time scorer, J'Covan Brown, scoreless in the first 7 minutes, but then couldn't keep playing at that same level of defensive intensity. Brown started to heat up, and Lamb clearly got gassed. The fatigue looked like it was team-wide, with the Bruins returning to their pre-Pepperdine ways of looking clueless in how to defend a screen.
Reeves Nelson also had a truly abysmal few minutes at the end of the first half, after the blackout, which really helped to give Texas a boost. He too casually got trapped in the post and turned over the ball, was incredibly slow on a rotation under the basket and got dunked on, and then softly went up for a drive on the other end to get his shot blocked. Brown was feeling it, and hit a three, so that turnaround took the game from UCLA leading 32-21 with about 2 minutes left, to 34-28 to end the half.
With UCLA's defense breaking down, it started to get impatient on the other end, settling for outside shots – and missing them. In the first half, UCLA had shot the ball well fairly well, making its first seven shots, mostly as a result of good shot selection. The Wears had converted some nice turn-around jump hooks on the block, exploiting Texas's younger post players, and the ball was working inside-outside nicely. Texas made some adjustments, denied the Wears the ball in the post in the second half and then trapped them when they did catch it in there, and UCLA was forced to take outside shots. It didn't help that Smith has absolutely regressed in finishing around the basket, seemingly unable to get off his feet to dunk the ball. If he alone had converted so many of his easy lay-ins UCLA probably would have been able to weather Texas's second-half surge. Jones hit a number of desperate jumpers in the second half, the kind of shots he had missed so far this season, that kept the score close.
UCLA truly was a different team BTB. It played with energy on both ends of the court, did so many of the little things well and benefitted from some great hustle plays, mostly led by the Wears.
But once Texas made those adjustments, the Longhorn youngsters settled down, and Texas's better talent emerged, and UCLA tired out. A not-fatigued Wear can be sporadically competitive at this level, but a fatigued Wear (David played 25 minutes and Travis 30) can't.
It wasn't a mystery why the fatigue hit. With Howland benching Nelson in the second half (for a poor attitude and demeanor in the first half and a poor week of practice), Josh Smith struggling to stay on the court (because of his conditioning?), Anthony Stover struggling to get into the flow since he's been used so little this season, and Howland seemingly not having confidence in Norman Powell in this game, UCLA was down to really just five players. Anderson and Lamb played 34 minutes each and Jones 31. And they played for long stretches in the second half without a break.
Where to go from here? It's difficult to say. It looked like the Bruins had taken a step forward against Pepperdine, even though the Waves were obviously a bad mid-major. But then UCLA perhaps its most promising moments of this season so far when its Pepperdine-type of play carried over into the first half against Texas. It appeared it had found at least a few answers. But now, after the Texas second half, those answers haven proven to be elusive.