More Heartbreak for Bruins

UCLA comes back from a 17-point deficit and then squanders a lead in overtime, ultimately losing to USC, 78-77. It's not only heartbreaking to lose to USC for the fourth consecutive time, but also heartbreaking to watch a team that continues to lack heart...

As a UCLA basketball fan, you've probably reached a point in this season where the losses don't hurt as much and you're just looking toward next year.

But no matter how much you're looking past this season, the loss against USC last night had to hurt.

In the end it was very similar to the ASU game earlier in the month where UCLA squandered it in crunch time and gave away the game. And that ASU game Head Coach Ben Howland described this week as the most heart-breaking of the season. So, well, chalk up an equally heart-breaking loss last night, as UCLA lost again in overtime, 78-77.

And while you've probably generally been successful looking past this season to next year, there were a number of reasons why this loss was so heart-breaking.

First, it's always disappointing, as a Bruin fan, to lose to USC. But this was especially heart-wrenching since it was the first time in 61 years that UCLA has lost four consecutive games to the Trojans. UCLA fans went through seven years of the Steve Lavin era where UCLA set many ignominous records, and you wanted to believe it was over. Of course, you can't place all of this at the feet of the current coaching staff, since Lavin is responsible for two of the four losses (and actually, at least partially responsible for even the two losses this season). But the "record" does hit a very sore spot for UCLA fans.

Secondly, what might have provided some silver lining to this season is if UCLA had pulled it together in the last 5-6 games or so, got a decent seed in the Pac-10 tournament, had a good showing there, and got a bid to the NIT (and then gracefully turned it down). But the two losses to ASU and to USC last night were huge in diminishing the chances of any of those scenarios. UCLA, if it had won those two games, would be in third place in the Pac-10 and probably in line to get nothing worse than a 6 or 7 seed in the Pac-10 tournament. Right now, UCLA is fighting to even get in the Pac-10 tournament, needing probably at least one win on the Oregon road trip next weekend to guarantee it. If it gets swept by the Oregon schools, it very well could be hanging by a thread for that last eighth seed in the Pac-10 tournament, with a series of complicated tie-breakers deciding it. And while many UCLA fans don't understand why getting a better seed in the Pac-10 tournament is even significant, it would present an opportunity for UCLA to possibly find more of a silver lining for the season. A better seed would have improved the chances of the silver lining.

The game was also particularly frustrating since it was a microcosm of the season. UCLA came out early on the coattails of Trevor Ariza and went up on USC. Ariza was on fire, much as he was commonly at the beginning of the season. At one point, during the beginning of the second half, UCLA had a total of 39 points and Ariza had 19 of them, finishing with 24. While Ariza was carrying the Bruins, there were some very obviously foreboding signs. UCLA couldn't get a basket from just about anyone else on the roster, and their zone defense was only marginally successful against the Trojans, who really just were shooting poorly, particularly Desmon Farmer, who you knew would eventually get hot (which he did in overtime). Also, UCLA looked like it had no energy, constantly getting beat on the boards for rebounds and looking very slow-footed defending the ball. Dijon Thompson said early in the week that he didn't care if they won any other games other than the USC game, but early on it didn't seem like he cared much about the USC game either. He was constantly getting beat defensively, and outworked for rebounds. But it just wasn't Thompson; besides Ariza, it was just about a team-wide lack of effort that got UCLA in a 17-point hole early in the second half.

Then, like in the season, after showing little competitiveness early on, UCLA fought back. It played better defensively and began getting rebounds. Thompson decided to get in the game, hitting his first field goal with 10 minutes left in the second half. The Bruins went up by five in overtime, an overall 22 point turn-around, which is nothing to scoff at. But, as has been common this season, UCLA couldn't close it out. It was, again, as if they expended so much energy to get back in the game that they didn't have any left in the tank to finish it. UCLA was, again, one rebound away from closing out USC with under a minute left in overtime, but USC beat UCLA to the ball consistently.

It's a tough situation that the UCLA basketball program finds itself in at this time. Howland is trying to instill fundamentals, discipline and hard work, and its random whether many of the players are buying into it. With some not, and only giving a half-hearted effort much of the time, the obsessive Howland gets more frustrated with them, which makes the players who have a tendency to pack it in do it even more.

From a personnel standpoint, there have been a few bright spots for the season, and this game again was evidence of that. Sophomore center Ryan Hollins is obviously responding to Howland and the coaching staff, continuing to improve and showing some real potential. If you remember how awkward he was with his back to the basket early in the season and how, just in this game, he showed a nice turnaround jump hook and a very impressive baseline spin move, it's easy to see his improvement. He also seems to be one of the few that has some consistent fire and competitiveness in him and is responding to Howland's challenge. Ariza again showed his talent against USC and played hard for much of the game. If he can buy into Howland's demands next season, the coaching staff has quite a bit of raw talent there from which to mold and create a good basketball player. And even though he's been sitting on the bench injured, you still have to have some optimism about Brian Morrison. He will only have one more year, and it might not have been enough time overall for Howland's staff to correct his bad habits and penchant for wildness, but there is hope that, after a year with the coaching staff, he will have improved considerably.

What will be interesting is if Dijon Thompson and Cedric Bozeman respond and step it up next season. The incoming freshmen are not only talented, but tough and highly competitive, and the returning veterans will realize that there now will be other players Howland can play if they don't exert effort and heart.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking aspect of the USC game is that, as Bruin fans, we've been hoping that the silver lining to be taken from the last few games of the season would be that the players who return next season show they had really now ultimately bought into Howland's standards of toughness, discipline and effort.

But at this point, that is still uncertain...

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