SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) After just nine games, No. 20 Gonzaga has already matched its loss total for all of last season. But the Bulldogs were preaching patience after falling to UCLA 71-66 Saturday night.
”It’s a really long season,” star forward Kyle Wiltjer said. ”Last year, we did better early on, then we kind of fell off.”
”As long as we’re getting better, that’s the goal, and just keeping our heads up,” he said.
The Bulldogs (6-3) lost for the second time in the past three games, all at home – and they narrowly beat visiting Montana on Tuesday.
The Bruins (7-3) seemed to enjoy playing in front of the raucous sellout crowd of 6,000 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
”What an environment,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. ”This is a great environment.”
The Bruins were eager to avenge two losses to Gonzaga last season, including one in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga finished 35-3 last season after losing to eventual champion Duke in the round of eighth.
”We could’ve played them in the park,” UCLA star Tony Parker said. ”We just wanted to play them.”
UCLA led most of the way Saturday, though the game was closely contested from start to finish. Gonzaga led 32-30 at the half.
Isaac Hamilton led the Bruins with 20 points and three steals. Parker sank 8 of 9 shots for 16 points and Bryce Alford scored 13. Jonah Bolden came off the bench to contribute 10 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and two game-clinching free throws with 4.7 seconds left.
Wiltjer scored 20 points and Domantas Sabonis added 18 points. They both had eight rebounds.
Steve Alford said Wiltjer is ”as good a player as we’re going to play all year long. He got 20. Sabonis got 18, but I thought they were hard-earned.”
Eric McClellan scored 14 points for the Bulldogs, including a driving layin that reduced UCLA’s lead to 65-64 with 1:29 to go. Thomas Welsh scored on a put-back at the other end to restore UCLA’s three-point lead.
”I think we grew tonight, though we lost,” McClellan said. ”That’s a talented UCLA team that came in here.”
The Bulldogs forced just eight turnovers and had 12 of their own. Gonzaga has made more turnovers than its opponents in all but one game.
”We’ve got to clean that up,” McClellan said.
UCLA: The Bruins are 31-28 against Top 25 teams since 2006-07. UCLA is 2-1 against Top 25 teams this season – the other win was against Kentucky – after going 2-7 last season and 2-3 in 2013-14.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs own a 154-11 record at the McCarthey Athletic Center since the arena opened at the start of the 2004-05 season. Gonzaga has never lost two consecutive games at ”the Mac.”
UCLA hosts Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday.
Gonzaga hosts Saint Martin’s on Monday.