Stick a fork in UCLA, it’s missing the NCAA tournament

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NEW YORK–It’s all but etched in stone now.

After UCLA’s 66-63 loss to St. John’s on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, it seems inevitable that the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 will now have to fight an uphill battle to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, and it won’t be through an at-large bid.

“I think we played into their game. We played at a more frantic pace than we wanted to,” said sophomore David Wear, who finished with 11 points and four rebounds. “I don’t think we were out-hustled; we just didn’t play our style of basketball.”

St. John’s used its match-up zone to disrupt the Bruins, forcing 16 turnovers and winning the game on the glass with 14 offensive rebounds.

Coach Ben Howland expressed his displeasure with a certain aspect that spoke to the bigger problem facing his team on Saturday. On three separate occasions, St. John’s airballs were rebounded and put back for second-chance points.

Chalk that up to jet lag, unpreparedness, or the underachieving label that has been slapped on this team throughout the 2011-12 season, but, against a team with as much a lack of size as St. John’s, the inability to grab key offensive boards in a game that was decided by three points can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

And the turnover problem, which hadn’t shown itself much this season, didn’t help. Coming into the game, the Bruins had the second-fewest turnovers per game in the conference. Of UCLA’s 16 total turnovers, guard Tyler Lamb had eight.

“I don’t know. I had a tough night. That’s unacceptable,” said Lamb, who also finished with 18 points. “That hurt our team. They were costly turnovers and I feel like they scored every time I turned the ball over.”

What looked to be missing the most from the Bruins’ attack, though, was a concerted effort to get the ball to Josh Smith on the block, despite the fact that he started the game with two nearly-uncontested dunks in the first three minutes.

He finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, though he had no points in the final 15 minutes of play.

Howland credits St. John’s change in defense for the lack of offensive emphasis on Smith in the second half.

Not to be expecting an upbeat team morale after losing a game that could have been a victory, but there seemed to be a lack of a sense of urgency.

Tyler Lamb wanted to dismiss that notion.

“When we walk into the locker room after a loss like this, it’s tough, you know, but it brings us together,” he said. “We win together and we lose together, but we know we need wins.”

UCLA remains three games back in the Pac 12 race and continues their road trip with a swing through the Grand Canyon State, getting Arizona State on Feb. 23and Arizona on Feb. 25.

Call it a PR answer or believe that this is how the Bruins see it, but Howland’s team has a different mindset than their critics.

“We prepare in every film session and walk-through, we’re preparing to win each game that we step on the court,” Wear added, in closing. “Honestly, [the difficulties ahead in getting to the NCAAs] aren’t even in our minds at all.”

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_