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A final week of cramming could help UCLA ace the test of March

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., front, pulls in a rebound in fornt of Colorado forward Jeriah Horne in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 70-61. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. pulls in a rebound in front of Colorado forward Jeriah Horne in the second half Saturday. Colorado won 70-61. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

In the last weighty quiz before the bigger tests of March, give UCLA a “D.”

Didn’t take care of the ball against Colorado. Didn’t show the needed poise to finish. Didn’t get the win that showed the Bruins could prevail in a hostile setting against a team that’s a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

It would be easy to say that this UCLA team, minus Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, was like someone walking into an exam without a lucky pen or a good night’s sleep. Except not even the Bruins are buying that they are too depleted or too young to win these kinds of games, even against a veteran opponent playing on its home court during senior night.

“I mean, it’s as simple as you’ve just got to get it done,” sophomore guard Johnny Juzang said late Saturday night after UCLA’s 70-61 loss at the CU Events Center. “There’s no kids here, you know what I’m saying? So we’ve got to get it done. We have everything, all the resources. There’s nothing missing. We’ve got a great coaching staff, great scouting reports, enough practice time, so we’ve just got to get it done at the end of the day.”

The altitude wasn’t the root of any sickness the Bruins felt in the final moments at 5,345 feet above sea level. It was the hero-ball approach that led to a sequence of shoddy offense that will never find its way into any Mick Cronin playbook.

Within one regrettable 56-second span, there was a dribbling turnover, a bad pass and a charging foul. Players stopped sharing the ball and started forcing things. A two-point lead became a five-point deficit, the prospects for the Bruins’ best road victory of the season crumbling around them.

“Candidly, I thought we tried to play too much individual basketball down the stretch,” Cronin said, “and therefore we had guys out of control and that’s why we had turnovers.”

The blunders continued, a staggering six turnovers over the final 6½ minutes. Jaime Jaquez Jr. was largely a no-show, Tyger Campbell appeared drained and Cody Riley wasn’t even around for the finish after fouling out with 2½ minutes to go.

Cronin, who considers every loss unacceptable, didn’t hold back in his critique, saying his team needed to be up by six or eight points before all those mistakes started compounding. But if you listened closely, Cronin also suggested that there might have been value in this defeat.

“We’re not quite where we need to be for the NCAA tournament yet,” Cronin told radio broadcasters Josh Lewin and Tracy Murray, “so we’ve got to use this to become a better team and make sure we don’t play individual basketball when the game’s on the line.”

Some perspective might be needed for those tempted to pile on after the Bruins’ first loss in nearly three weeks. They are still atop the Pac-12 Conference, albeit by half a game over USC. Their NET ranking of 37 didn’t budge after the loss, meaning they didn’t drop in one of the primary metrics used by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

More important, the memory of their late-game sloppiness could quickly recede into the background if the Bruins (17-6 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) can straighten themselves out in the coming days. A road game at Oregon on Wednesday followed by a home finale against No. 19 USC on March 6 will present opportunities for both a confidence and NCAA tournament seedings boost.

“We’re going to find out over the next week what we’re made of,” Cronin said. “Are we a year away or are we ready for this? Are we going to get better through each one of these trials, are we going to be tougher at winning time?”

More quizzes are coming, the final grade to be determined, their own fate far from sealed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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