When UCLA had trouble just getting the ball to midcourt, the Bruins frazzled by swarming bodies and waving arms, it was obvious they weren’t playing a low-major team on their homecourt anymore.
This was a rude welcome to Big Ten Conference-style basketball in what felt like a road game rather than a neutral court, the Illinois fans who filled most of T-Mobile Arena roaring with every turnover their team forced.
In its first test of the season, UCLA failed miserably, as if it stopped filling in answers halfway through.
Incapable of handling intense pressure Friday night in the Continental Tire Main Event, the No. 8 Bruins frittered away a 15-point lead while stumbling to a 79-70 loss to No. 19 Illinois.
“This is real simple: They were a lot tougher than us in a lot of areas,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after his team gave up 51 points in the second half. “We wilted. When the game got turned up, the game got physical, they refused to go away, we caved. That’s my fault.”
UCLA’s consolation prize after committing nine of its 15 turnovers in the second half? A consolation game against No. 5 Baylor on Sunday afternoon after Virginia upset the Bears earlier Friday.
Even with a heavy edge in veteran savvy, three Bruins starters having played in a Final Four two years ago, it was a mismatch in favor of the orange-clad team featuring five new starters among its 10 newcomers. The Illini ended the game on a 50-26 run, the decibel level rising with every steal and layup.
“I didn’t know what the score was for four minutes,” Cronin said. “I’ve never seen that.”
It seemed hard to believe about a half hour later, but the Bruins (3-1) looked like they might win in a runaway early in the second half. Jaime Jaquez Jr. took a touch pass in the corner from Adem Bona and rose for a three-pointer that extended his team’s lead to 44-29.
But Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. countered with a three-pointer and the Illini forced back-to-back turnovers ending in layups to complete a 7-0 run.
“In coaching terms, they muddied the game up so we couldn’t execute,” Cronin said. “They put the pressure on and to be honest, I’m surprised our veterans, the way they handled it. But then again, I’m their coach, so if we don’t handle something well we didn’t prepare them well enough.”
Illinois (4-0) nearly extended its surge when it forced another turnover before UCLA’s Tyger Campbell took a charge to finally get his team the ball back.
Campbell (22 points), Jaquez (20) and David Singleton (15) combined for 57 points, or 81.4% of their team’s scoring production, not getting nearly enough support.
Jaylen Clark, who entered the game averaging a team-high 17.3 points, finished with seven points on three-for-eight shooting while making just one steal, a season low.
Clark also was among the Bruins who put up a futile defensive effort on Shannon, who made eight of nine three-pointers on the way to 29 points.
“Right now, we’re worried about offense, so we don’t hear defensive assignments, we don’t hear defensive adjustments, we don’t hear scouting report,” Cronin said. “We think we’re great. The oldest trick in the book — show me a guy that’s not humble and I’ll show you a guy that’s getting ready to be humbled.”
Cronin said he knew his team was in trouble based on the way practice went Thursday.
“I had guys telling me, ‘Don’t worry,’” Cronin said. “We’re going to hang a banner because we beat Norfolk State.”
There are no banners for beating teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the Bruins showed they have considerable work left to compete with the best of the Big Ten before their arrival — UC regents willing — as members of the conference in 2024.
“We just didn’t handle it well,” Jaquez said. “We weren’t tough enough to handle their pressure — they came at us and like coach said, we just folded, there’s really nothing more to it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.