In an embarrassing second-half collapse filled with ill-advised shots and cringe-inducing defensive lapses, UCLA guard Norman Powell made the most egregious mistake of all.
Powell lost track of the score after teammate Jordan Adams' game-tying layup with 18 seconds to go and fouled Cal Poly's Kyle Odister intentionally before he crossed mid-court. Odister sank the foul shots, Powell and Anderson missed 3-point attempts on the ensuing possession and Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) emerged with a stunning 70-68 victory in a game it trailed by 18 points eight minutes into the second half.
"Obviously we didn't tell Norman to foul," UCLA coach Ben Howland told reporters in his postgame press conference. "He didn't know what the score was. We were down two during the timeout talking about that we were going to foul if we were down. But with the game tied, obviously that was a critical mistake to foul."
UCLA's inability to close out Cal Poly at home is an ominous sign both for the Bruins' hopes of reestablishing themselves as one of the West Coast's elite teams and for Ben Howland's chances of keeping his job beyond this season. A decorated recruiting class was expected to breathe new life into a program that has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three years, but so far this year's Bruins don't look any better than the previous few incarnations.
If it was worrisome that UCLA needed overtime to escape UC Irvine and required a late comeback to turn back Georgia, then Sunday night's loss to Cal Poly was flat-out alarming. The Mustangs are a middle-of-the-pack Big West program that has never made the NCAA tournament and already has sustained losses to middling Fresno State and TCU this season.
It's tempting to blame Powell for this loss because of his ill-advised foul, but UCLA never should have been in position to need a defensive stop to force overtime. Numerous other Bruins must share the blame for enabling Cal Poly to claw back from a 51-33 deficit with 11:50 remaining in the game.
Joshua Smith logged only nine minutes off the bench and amassed more fouls (four) than points (two). Kyle Anderson contributed a mere two points off the bench as well, though he did have five rebounds and four assists. And Travis and David Wear played the majority of the minutes in the frontcourt yet were pushed around by freshman Brian Bennett and junior Chris Eversley, who combined for 31 points and 14 rebounds.
Of course, maybe the most blame has to fall on Howland, the man who has yet to be able to get much out of the talented roster he has assembled. On Sunday, Howland couldn't inspire his team to work hard on either end of the floor once it had built a big lead, enabling Cal Poly to shoot 13 of 19 to finish the game and score 37 points in the final 12 minutes after amassing 33 in the first 28.
With Howland facing pressure to not just return to the NCAA tournament this season but also do some damage in March, he cannot afford too many more early slip-ups.
Games against San Diego State, Missouri, Texas and Long Beach State loom before the start of Pac-12 play. Right now UCLA doesn't look remotely ready.
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