BERKELEY — UCLA won it at the finish, but Cal coach Mark Madsen said the Bears lost it at the start.
“We had a bad first half. They had all the energy. We were sluggish,” Madsen said after the Bears fought back from a 14-point deficit before losing 61-60 at Haas Pavilion on Saturday afternoon. “Give UCLA credit — they came out and blitzed us.”
Down 35-24 after its lowest-scoring first half of the season and trailing by 14 barely 3 minutes into the second half, Cal (10-14, 6-7 Pac-12) gave the crowd of 9,280 reason to cheer in a game that had four lead changes in the final 65 seconds.
“We came back fighting in the second half,” Madsen said, “but it wasn’t enough to get over the hump.”
The Bruins (13-11, 8-5) won their fifth straight game and deprived Cal of sweeping them for the first time since the 2011-12 season. The Bears won’t get the chance to do it anytime soon, moving to the ACC next season while UCLA heads off to the Big Ten.
The Bears lost for just the second time in six games after beating USC 83-77 in overtime on Wednesday.
“Disappointed because I thought we were capable of sweeping the L.A. schools,” said junior Jalen Celestine, who scored 13 points. “The fact that we felt short it stinks, for sure.”
The Bears play five of their seven remaining Pac-12 games on the road, starting with a swing through Washington next week.
“It’s a lot harder to win on the road,” Celestine acknowledged. “I think we’re a very capable team and I think the conference is starting to take notice.”
Fardaws Aimaq put the Bears in front 55-53 on a putback of his own miss with 1:05 left before the Bruins called timeout. They went right to big man Adem Bona, who scored from the post and converted a free throw for a 56-55 lead with 50.4 seconds left.
Aimaq then tipped in a miss by Jaylon Tyson, giving the lead back to Cal with 45 seconds left. But guard Dylan Andrews sunk a mid-range jumper and UCLA was back in front 58-55 with 25.3 seconds left.
Tyson, who led the Bears with 16 points, missed on a contested drive to the basket and Lazar Stefanovic made two free throws for a 60-57 lead with 16.4 seconds left. Sebastian Mack inched the lead to four points by making the second of two free throws with 4.5 seconds to play.
Celestine hit a running 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left.
Aimaq finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his 16th double-double of the season.
The Bears, who have played 13 games decided by four points or fewer or in overtime, dug themselves a hole in this one.
“They came out and they punched us in the face, to be honest. They just played harder than us to start the game,” Celestine said.
Madsen was at a loss to explain why that happened, especially in front of the Bears’ third straight big home crowd. Cal, whose average attendance during its 3-29 season a year ago was 2,155, has attracted nearly 30,000 fans over the past three home games.
The Bears’ first-year coach said Cal’s early tentative play on offense allowed UCLA to score 13 first-half points off eight turnovers. In the second half, Cal turned it over just three times and the Bruins got no points off the giveaways.
The Bruins also dominated the boards in the first half before the Bears outrebounded them 24-22 over the final 20 minutes.
“It’s difficult,” Madsen said of missing out on the chance beat the Bruins for the second time this season. “But with that disappointment, there’s a huge opportunity for us to get much more tough, much more physical.
“We have a tough road trip next week to Washington State and Washington and I can tell you we’re going to be ready to go.”