UCLA mired in a 4-game losing streak heading into Pac-12 play

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In a season slipping away before the start of conference play, games might not be the most important thing a team centered on freshmen and sophomores is losing.

“They’ve lost their confidence,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told reporters of his players Friday night. “This is just my opinion, I’m not saying I’m right … but we’ve lost our confidence.”

Citing missed free throws and clanked open shots early in games, Cronin said the lack of belief in what the Bruins are doing carries over to defense, leading to the sort of breakdowns that plagued UCLA during a 69-60 loss to Maryland on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion.

“So it snowballs, right?” Cronin said after his team’s fourth consecutive loss, which dropped the Bruins (5-6) below .500 this deep into a season for the first time since they were 8-9 in January 2020. “They’re young, they’re trying to live up to the letters on the jersey and the ball’s not going in and they start to feel the snowball effect.”

Clunky offense combined with sagging defense left UCLA in a 20-point hole early in the second half only three days after a stunning home loss to Cal State Northridge. The Bruins finally found some swagger during a 27-9 run fueled by rebounding and strong defense.

After UCLA freshman guard Sebastian Mack made a short jumper in the lane, the Bruins trailed just 57-55 and got the ball back after getting another stop. A crowd that had been quiet started to stir with the Bruins on the brink of what looked to be a breakthrough victory.

But UCLA sophomore guard Dylan Andrews missed a jumper that would have tied the score and Maryland’s Jahmir Young scored six of the next seven points to help the Terrapins (8-4) pull away.

Becoming the latest player to almost single-handedly foil the Bruins, Young scored a career-high 37 points on 13-for-19 shooting while also illustrating UCLA’s inability to carry out its game plan.

“I told the guys he’s got to get 25 for them to win and he got it at halftime,” Cronin said after Young actually scored 23 points by the game’s midpoint. “So we did an absolutely horrendous job on him, but congratulations to him. He played great, but we did an awful job. Could not have done a worse job.”

UCLA’s search for consistent offense besides Mack (17 points) continued. Andrews (11 points) was the only other Bruin in double figures while making four of 15 shots, indicative of a team that shot 31.5% from the field and made one of 14 three-pointers (7.1%).

Lazar Stefanovic’s shooting slump deepened, the junior guard missing all six of his shots and finishing with one point. Aday Mara was a nonfactor, the freshman center benched for the second half and scoring three points in eight minutes. Adem Bona’s seasonlong struggles dragged on, the sophomore center tallying eight points, four rebounds, one steal and one block before fouling out in only 20 minutes.

“We’ve got to get more out of Adem,” Cronin said.

In his return from a three-game absence because of an ankle injury, UCLA freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel picked up two fouls in two first-half minutes, symbolizing his team’s struggles. Buyuktuncel went on to collect four points and five rebounds in 12 minutes.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks with players during a timeout in the second half against Maryland on Friday.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

After his team failed to log one nonconference victory against a Power Five team, Cronin is in serious danger of ending his personal streak of making 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments dating to his last nine seasons at Cincinnati. The Bruins have lost two straight home games after having won their previous 29.

“I mean, we just have to be better,” Andrews said. “We tell our guys every day that … we’re at home, we don’t lose at home. We just have to come out and be better.”

Featuring seven freshmen and three sophomores, these Bruins don’t do anything particularly well, even their strong defense from earlier in the season fading over the last few weeks. Among other issues, they lack a leader, a clearly defined offensive plan, a bevy of good shooters and an ability to reliably score in the post or get the ball in scoring position to their big men.

Their coach just added confidence to the list of items lacking, saying he was concerned about this possibility after his team played reasonably well in close losses to Marquette, Gonzaga, Villanova and Ohio State. Since then, the Bruins have regressed in home losses to Northridge and Maryland.

How do the Bruins regain their belief?

“Tough,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to find a way to get a win. You’ve got to man up. … It just seems like everybody’s looking for the next guy to do it, in my opinion.”

Maybe even a symbolic change could help. A new year is coming. Pac-12 play is about to start.

At this point, those might be the only positives for a young team that seems lost.

“Look, nobody feels sorry for you,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to get better and find a way.”

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