UCLA fails miserably in its first test of the season, losing to Illinois

Illinois forward Dain Dainja goes against UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba in the first half of the Bruins’ 79-70 loss on Friday night. (Chase Stevens/Associated Press)

When UCLA struggled to get the ball up the middle, the Bruins were crushed by swarms of bodies and waving arms, it was obvious they were no longer playing a low-level team on their home court.

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 packed most of 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 in answers halfway through.

Unable to handle the intense pressure Friday night in the Continental Tire Main Event, the No. 8 Bruins blew a 15-point lead while stumbling to a 79-70 loss at No. 19 Illinois.

“This is very 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 withered. When the game started, the game got physical, they refused to go away, we backed down. This is 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 veteran advantage, three Bruins starters who played in a Final Four two years ago, it was a mismatch in favor of the Orange team that had five new starters among 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 looked hard to believe about half an hour later, but the Bruins (3-1) looked like they might win on a run early in the second half. Jaime Jaquez Jr took a touch pass in the corner from Adem Bona and went up for a 3-pointer that extended his team’s lead to 44-29.

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr.  shoots over Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr.  and Jayden Epps.

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. shoots over Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) and Jayden Epps (3) in the first half Friday. (Chase Stevens/Associated Press)

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, left, drives against Illinois guard Sencire Harris during the second half Friday.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, left, drives against Illinois guard Sencire Harris during the second half Friday. (Chase Stevens/Associated Press)

But Illinois’ Terence Shannon Jr. countered with a 3-pointer and the Illini forced turnovers that ended in layups to complete a 7-0 run.

“In coaching terms, they muddied the game so we couldn’t execute it,” Cronin said. “They put pressure on me and to be honest, I’m surprised for 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 streak when it forced another turnover before UCLA’s Tiger Campbell took over to finally get his team the ball back.

Campbell (22 points), Jacquez (20) and David Singleton (15) combined for 57 points, or 81.4% of their team scoring, didn’t get 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 was also among the Bruins who made a futile defensive effort on Shannon, who made eight of nine 3-pointers en route to 29 points.

“Right now, we’re worried about the offense, so we’re not hearing defensive assignments, we’re not hearing defensive adjustments, we’re not hearing scouting report,” Cronin said. “We think we’re great. Oldest trick in the book — show me a man who isn’t humble and I’ll show you a man who’s about to be humbled.”

Illinois forward Dain Dainja, left, celebrates next to UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Illinois forward Dain Dainja, left, celebrates next to UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. in the first half of the Bruins’ loss Friday. (Chase Stevens/Associated Press)

Cronin said he knew his team was in trouble based on the way practice went Thursday.

“I’ve had guys tell me, ‘Don’t worry,'” Cronin said. “We’re going to hang a banner because we beat Norfolk State.”

There are no banners to beat teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the Bruins have shown they have enough work to compete with the Big Ten’s best before their arrival — UC regents willing — as conference members 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 the coach said, we just go for it, there’s nothing else to it.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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