ANAHEIM, Calif. — A trying week for UCLA basketball that began ominously last Sunday with a Pauley Pavilion loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and continued with the transfer of two scholarship players, ended Saturday with a thud.
No. 23 San Diego State (5-1) shot 60 percent in the second half and exposed UCLA’s (5-3) lack of depth in a 78-69 win, the teams’ first win over UCLA since 1940.
“I think we had a four-point lead with about 19 minutes to go, and then our zone really got tortured by their 3-point shooting,” Bruins head coach Ben Howland said. “We had some missed communications and breakdowns on our responsibilities in the zone.”
Without the size and experience of forward Josh Smith — one of the two players transferring out of Westwood — UCLA relied on a seven-man rotation in which no player who checked into the game registered fewer than 21 minutes.
But Howland didn’t see the limited bench and the eight scholarship players on UCLA’s roster as a factor in the loss.
“Other than Larry [Drew II], the minutes were spread around pretty solidly. I don’t think we lost the game because of fatigue in any way,” Howland said, referencing his senior guard who was on the court for 39 minutes.
As dispiriting of a week as it was for the Bruins, it was another positive step forward for the Aztecs basketball program, which won its 26th consecutive game against California schools and its 11th consecutive game against teams currently in the Pac-12 conference.
“I feel that we are the best [in California] right now, but I’m not saying we’re the best forever,” Aztecs guard Jamaal Franklin said. “It’s a lot of good teams out there playing. UCLA is a good team. USC played us down to the nose at their house, so I feel that we did a lot to earn that position right now, and we’ve got a good team. We’re moving on. We just have to make sure this game is in the past. We keep moving on. Try to make it 27, then 28, and 29, and 30.”
Jordan Adams led UCLA with 23 points, Shabazz Muhammad added 16 and Norman Powell tallied 10. Franklin led all scorers with 28 points while Xavier Thames chipped in 19 and DeShawn Stephens tallied 12 for the Aztecs.
For the coaches of the two programs, the passing of Rick Majerus earlier Saturday cast a melancholy sentiment over the game. Both Howland and San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher were among the coaching fraternity that had been inspired by Majerus.
“Rick was a mentor to me as a young coach, both at UCSB and at Northern Arizona,” Howland said. “He was a great coach and a really really good person. It’s a sad day for basketball and the community of basketball because he was a brilliant man, and I’m just really sorry about that.”
Fisher’s Midwestern roots were intertwined with those of Majerus.
“I got to know Rick when he was a young grad assistant. Didn’t have a driver’s license when he was at Marquette,” Fisher said. “I was a high-school coach in Chicago, and we both worked the Digger Phelps camp. And every night in the basement in the dorm where we were, the Father would come down, and Rick would hold court with a case of beer for everybody else and engage everyone in stories. Phenomenal coach. A better person. Cared about family. Cared about people. He will be missed by everyone, and I got to know him quite well. He’ll be missed by all of us.”
In the 21 years in which they waited for another shot at the Bruins – their last game, in December, 1991, ended in an 84-64 UCLA win – the Aztecs faced every other Division I team in California, save Cal State Bakersfield, an independent that made the jump to D-I status in 2010.
It was an opportunity that a veteran San Diego State team seized under the aura of the late, legendary Bruins coach.
“To come here with an opportunity to play in [John Wooden’s] event and represent our program against his team, UCLA, is something you don’t take lightly,” Fisher said.
“And I said he’ll be cheering for the Bruins, but what I want us to do, is at the end of the game have him say ‘Good job, Aztecs.’ And I think he did.”