When UCLA struggled to get the ball just to center field, the Bruins drunk with teeming bodies and flailing arms, it was clear they were no longer playing a low-major team on their home court.
This was a rude welcome to Big Ten Conference-style basketball in what felt like a road game instead of a neutral field, the Illinois fans who filled most of the T-Mobile Arena roaring with every turnover their team forced.
In the first test of the season, UCLA failed miserably, as if it stopped filling out answers halfway through.
Unable to handle the intense pressure at the Continental Tire Main Event on Friday night, the No. 8 Bruins squandered a 15-point lead as they stumbled to a 79-70 loss to No. 19 Illinois.
“This is very simple: they were much stronger than us in many areas,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin after his team conceded 51 points in the second half. “We wilted. When the game turned up, the game got physical, they refused to leave, we collapsed. That is my mistake.”
UCLA’s consolation prize after committing nine of 15 second-half turnovers? A consolation game against No. 5 Baylor on Sunday afternoon after Virginia upset the Bears earlier Friday.
Even with a big lead on veteran knowledge, three Bruins starters who played in a Final Four two years ago, it was a mismatch in favor of the orange-clad team with five new starters among the 10 newcomers. The Illini finished the game with a 50-26 run, the decibel level rising with every theft and layup.
“I didn’t know what the score was for four minutes,” Cronin said. “I’ve never seen that.”
About half an hour later it seemed hard to believe, but the Bruins (3-1) looked like they would win early in the second half. Jaime Jaquez Jr. took a touch pass into Adem Bona’s corner and got up for a three-pointer that extended his team’s lead to 44-29.
But Terrence Shannon Jr. from Illinois responded with a three-pointer and the Illini forced back-to-back turnovers that ended in layups to complete a 7–0 run.
“In coaching terms, they clouded the game so we couldn’t execute it,” Cronin said. “They stepped up the pressure and to be honest, I’m surprised by our veterans, the way they handled it. But again, I’m their coach, so if we don’t handle something right, we haven’t prepared them well enough.”
Illinois (4-0) nearly extended its rise as it forced another turnover before UCLA’s Tyger Campbell mounted a charge to finally give 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, falling short of nearly enough support.
Jaylen Clark, who entered the game averaging 17.3 points for the team, finished with seven points on three-of-eight shooting while only stealing once, a season low.
Clark was also among the Bruins to make a futile defensive effort on Shannon, who made eight of nine three-pointers on his way to 29 points.
“Right now we’re concerned about attacks, so we’re not hearing defensive commands, we’re not hearing defensive adjustments, we’re not hearing a scouting report,” Cronin said. “We think we’re great. The oldest trick in the book – show me a man who isn’t humble and I’ll show you a man who’s getting ready to get humble.
Cronin said he knew his team was in trouble based on how practice went Thursday.
“People told me, ‘Don’t worry,'” Cronin said. “We’re going to put up a banner because we defeated Norfolk State.”
There are no banners for beating teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the Bruins showed that they still have a lot of work to do to compete with the best of the Big Ten before they are — UC regents willing — as members of the conference in 2024.
“We just didn’t handle it right,” Jaquez said. “We weren’t strong enough to deal with their pressure – they came at us and as the coach said, we just folded, there’s really nothing left to do.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.