Sloppy defense and poor shooting plague UCLA's starting guards in loss to rival USC

Southern California guard Boogie Ellis (5) steals the ball from UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic.
USC guard Boogie Ellis steals the ball from UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic during the second half of the Bruins' 62-56 loss Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

It was only a week ago that UCLA’s starting guards seemed to have fully rewritten the previously unpleasant narratives about their season.

Once derided for lacking point guard skills, Dylan Andrews’ two-way stardom was prompting worries that he might leave early for the NBA.

Long criticized for wild, selfish play, Sebastian Mack was becoming a galvanizing force.

Often condemned by fans as unworthy of playing for UCLA, Lazar Stefanovic was fully embraced.

Any honest accounting of their play swerved once again Saturday night, and not in a way that would make any of them want to keep reading.

Read more: Boogie Ellis scores 24 as USC surges in second half to stun rival UCLA

Andrews was sloppy on defense, missed all seven of his shots and offset his five assists with an equal number of turnovers. Mack made three of 10 shots, burying his only three-pointer with 8.8 seconds left in the game. Stefanovic repeatedly dribbled into the paint and turned the ball over.

It got worse. After the threesome was basically a big zero during the Bruins’ 62-56 loss to USC at Pauley Pavilion, their coach seemed to suggest that he was open to bringing in new players with the grit that his team lacked.

Asked if he could teach fight, UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, “I’d rather recruit fight. I’d rather recruit heart and toughness.”

Cronin went on to list four of his former Bruins who possessed that fight. He acknowledged that his current team had played better lately in winning eight of its last 11 games but had no chance against the Trojans given a week of listless practices that preceded it, playing hard for only about five minutes Saturday.

Perhaps most troubling was the Bruins’ lack of defensive focus, considering what was written on a board in the locker room regarding USC guard Boogie Ellis.

“Do not let him get the ball,” Cronin said of the message. “Do not let him shoot. Make somebody else beat us.”

Ellis wrecked the Bruins almost by himself, scoring 24 points on nine-for-18 shooting in a strong rebuttal to his eight-point effort in the rivalry game last month at the Galen Center. Andrews had capably shadowed Ellis in the first game between the teams but was repeatedly beaten in the rematch.

“I want to say a little bit of lack of concentration, I guess, being aware of where he is,” Stefanovic said of the collectively crummy defense on Ellis. “We knew that we shouldn’t let him shoot, and he is one guy that really needs to score for them to win games and we weren’t able to stop him.”

Read more: Beyond the screaming, there's a (winning) method to Mick Cronin's madness at UCLA

A sellout crowd that included UCLA basketball luminaries David Greenwood, Norman Powell and Jim Harrick — not to mention highly coveted recruit Khaman Maluach — had little to cheer besides the introduction of new football coach DeShaun Foster during a timeout. Foster announced that his team would hold a spring game April 27 at the Rose Bowl, ending the practice under his predecessor of staging just a glorified practice in front of fans.

For most of the game, the Bruins played with the urgency of an exhibition. Their perimeter defense was passive and their ball movement was bottled up by the active Trojans.

“I don’t know what was the reason for it,” Stefanovic said of slow starts to each half that led to double-digit deficits, “but obviously, me as one of the veteran guys have to do a better job of having everybody ready, and myself included, to bring in more energy and right away from the start.”

The loss removed some lingering drama in that the Bruins (14-13 overall, 9-7 Pac-12) now have no choice but to win the conference tournament next month to reach the NCAA tournament. But they have no chance if their guards contribute another no-show.

Stefanovic, a junior transfer from Utah who is the most veteran member of the rotation, said he had one message for his teammates afterward, and it might sound familiar to the Trojans: Keep fighting.

“When we’re winning, we’re winning for one reason, and that’s because we’re playing harder than our opponent,” Stefanovic said. “Whenever we came down needing a rebound, we would get a rebound, offense or defense. We shut a team down whenever we needed to, and we would get a stop.”

As Saturday showed, it becomes a tale of woe when the three Bruins guards go 0 for 3.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.