Unleashing NCAA tournament-level intensity in the first half, unranked UCLA showed that it could be an unexpected force in March.
Almost fully unraveling in the second half, the Bruins displayed how much work remains to get there.
After a wildly vacillating game against Marquette in which the Bruins’ 12-point lead became a seven-point deficit, they had the ball trailing by two with 21 seconds left. UCLA coach Mick Cronin called time out to set up a play. It was disrupted after the Golden Eagles tipped the ball out of bounds with 8.8 seconds to go.
UCLA got two more chances but came up empty both times. Lazar Stefanovic’s three-pointer missed and a wild Sebastian Mack shot off his offensive rebound was off the mark, leaving the Bruins with a 71-69 loss to the No. 4 Golden Eagles at the Stan Sheriff Center in the opening around of the Maui Invitational.
The Bruins (3-1) will play tournament host Chaminade on Thursday in a losers bracket game.
Mack finished with a career-high 25 points and sophomore center Adem Bona added 13 for the Bruins, who allowed Marquette (4-0) to shoot 54.2% in the second half.
UCLA earned a standing ovation from its fans early in the second half when Bona drove for a vicious two-handed dunk, giving the Bruins a 43-33 lead. The lead grew to 12 points after Mack drove for a tough, contested layup.
Everything was going the Bruins’ way. Then nothing was.
Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro drove for a dunk over Bona and Berke Buyuktuncel, igniting his team on a 17-0 run that included an assist from Bona for a ferocious elbow that earned him a technical foul. By the time Ighodaro threw down another dunk over Buyuktuncel, the Golden Eagles were up 46-45 and their contingent of fans that included alumnus and former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade was roaring.
What had been a UCLA runaway was suddenly tilting heavily in the other direction as Marquette took a 50-45 lead before Bruins freshman guard Ilane Fibleuil buried a three-pointer.
The blue Hawaiian shirt and traditional stone necklace that Cronin wore on the eve of the tournament couldn’t hide the strain on his face knowing the challenge facing his young team.
Establishing a rotation and divvying minutes were the least of Cronin’s concerns. The Bruins arrived here prone to turnovers and an inability to sustain defensive intensity, not to mention mastering the concepts of their coach’s complex scheme..
For 25 minutes, it appeared Cronin was worried for nothing.
Looking nothing like the team that doodled its way to season-opening wins over three no-name teams, UCLA surged into a 35-30 halftime lead thanks to a rare level of early season intensity.
Making his first appearance and start after getting cleared by the NCAA, Buyuktuncel was a formidable presence on both ends of the court even if he missed his first five shots. He blocked a shot in the early going to go with three rebounds and two assists.
Relying heavily on Stefanovic’s baseline jumpers and Mack’s ability to get to the free-throw line, the Bruins built leads as large as eight points. They got a surprise boost from sophomore guard Will McClendon, whose two three-pointers in the first half matched his total from all of last season, when he made just two of 28 shots from beyond the arc.
He added a three-pointer in the second half and finished three of five from long range.
Defensively, the Bruins gave Marquette almost nothing easy inside, giving the Golden Eagles some opportunities from long range. Marquette rarely capitalized, making just five of 18 three-pointers (27.8%) by the game’s midpoint.