HOUSTON — When Sheldon McClellan hit a pair of free throws to put Texas up 61-53 with 3:02 remaining, it appeared the Longhorns would get a much-needed non-conference win over a name opponent in UCLA.
But three minutes later, the Bruins were celebrating on the makeshift court at Reliant Stadium as Jonathan Holmes’s final shot fell short, thanks to a 12-2 UCLA run to close out the game.
“I thought we gave the game away,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes. “We didn’t execute the things that we wanted to execute.”
The game was built up as a matchup between two talented young teams. UCLA wings Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad and Texas center Cameron Ridley all were ranked among the nation’s top 11 prospects in the 2012 class.
And that list doesn’t include Jordan Adams, UCLA’s leading scorer entering the game, and the catalyst for the Bruin comeback. With the Bruins trailing by six, Adams hit a layup as he was fouled by Connor Lammert, cutting the deficit to three. And after Larry Drew II missed a three-pointer on the Bruins’ next possession, Adams grabbed the rebound and stuck the ball back through contact with Julien Lewis. He again cooly converted his free throw, taking UCLA from six down with less than two minutes left to a tie ball game at 1:15.
“I thought the play of the game was Adams’s offensive rebound and stick back,” Barnes said.
But while Adams floated the offense, the Bruin defense began pressing and forced the Longhorns off their game. Texas point guard Javan Felix committed a turnover — his second of the final three minutes — leading to a Muhammad free throw and a one-point Bruin lead with 47 seconds left.
“I thought we played good defense down the stretch,” Muhammad said.
Felix hurried a shot on the other end, which was blocked by Anderson. Adams scooped up the ball and found Anderson on the fast break for two points and a three-point lead.
“As soon as we started pressing, I think that really helped us,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “We started pressing and that kind of created a problem for them.
“One of my assistants had said we should try to press,” Howland said. “It’s just hard when we’re playing eight guys. But down the stretch, behind, I thought that obviously really helped us.”
Holmes added a two, trimming the lead to one, then Adams hit one-of-two free throws. A long three-point attempt by Holmes was off. In all, Bruin freshmen accounted for all 12 points in the game-ending run.
“It’s all new for freshmen,” Howland said. “So I was really pleased the way they battled. They’re getting better, and really taking pride in it.”
Protecting his thin roster, Howland went to a zone for much of the game. Early on, the Longhorns didn’t hit their shots, but the sagging defense allowed Felix to get into the flow and score 13 points while dropping four assists.
“I think Felix is a really good player. Any time you throw a freshman point guard into (38) minutes a game, it’s a difficult situation. Obviously without [Myck] Kabongo, it’s a different team. He’s a great player.”
Kabongo sat out his ninth consecutive game under NCAA investigation. Afterward, Barnes admitted that Felix was playing “about 23 minutes” more than what the Longhorns expected from him, had Kabongo been active. That would have left Felix with a more manageable 15 minutes per game.
But Felix found openings against the zone, and Ridley thrived, putting up his first career double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 boards with four dunks thrown in. In a first half where the Longhorns were just 1-of-11 from distance, Ridley kept Texas within two points, with UCLA leading 32-30 at intermission.
After halftime, both Lewis and McClellan kicked in offensively, with the two scoring 19 of their 21 points in the second half. That included McClellan’s final two points with 3:02 left.
“We just got comfortable with the lead and careless with the ball,” McClellan said.
Texas also gave away three possessions on missed wide-open layups over the course of the game, potential buckets that came back to haunt the Longhorns.
“It’s a big difference between college and high school,” Felix said. “Every possession counts. And tonight, we gave up a few possessions.”
Felix’s freshman counterparts, Adams (18), Muhammad (16) and Anderson (11) all scored in double figures for UCLA.
“I think that both Shabazz and Jordan are those guys that can get you a basket when you need one,” Howland said.
That final stretch only served to reinforce that belief. And in a game of two young teams trying to find a way to win, UCLA (6-3) came out on top. Texas (5-4) has now gone 3-4 since starting the season 2-0.
“They are probably one of the few teams in the country that’s younger than us,” Howland said. “So Rick’s dealing with the same things in terms of the youth and the expectation. We’re just happy to come away with this.”