LAS VEGAS –
Not again. Not again. Not again.
Two years later, another deep Gonzaga dare.
Two years later, another desperate look at UCLA.
Two years later, another dagger.
This can’t keep happening, can it? Gonzaga can’t keep beating UCLA with a basket out of nowhere in the final seconds of an NCAA championship game, right?
The unimaginable became real. The unthinkable became the unbelievable. UCLA’s worst history repeated itself as hell.
With six seconds left in Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown at T-Mobile Arena, the Bruins rallied from a second-half collapse to take a one-point lead when Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther hit a 32-yard jumper from the top. the key to stealing an unbelievable victory, drowning out the crowd’s clamor and evoking the saddest memory.
Zaga dancing. Wrinkled Bruins. Season over. Just like him.
On the verge of a victory against their fiercest rivals, UCLA lost 79-76 to end their true national title hopes with a repeat of heartbreak.
“He hit a big shot,” Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. a pale and tired one, “and we lost.”
Bruins fans have heard that before.
Two years ago, in the final second of overtime in the national semifinals, the Zags’ Jalen Suggs hit a 40-footer to do the same thing, and how weird and unimaginable is that?
Two years ago, though, UCLA was a huge underdog, and the crushing defeat was the start of a three-year run back to the national rankings.
Thursday was different. For the senior trio of Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and David Singleton, it wasn’t an exciting start, but an uncharacteristic end to the road.
The Bruins were in favor of these. These Bruins took a 13-point lead into halftime. These Bruins took a one-point lead six seconds before Strawther hit a three-pointer by freshman Amari Bailey.
Unlike two years ago, when outscored by 16 points in the second half, the Bruins blew this game.
Their fight, so strong for so long, suddenly faded.
Their teamwork, so smooth for so many seasons, was suddenly broken.
Their experience, so important to this veteran team seemingly headed for the Final Four, suddenly left them.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. UCLA’s guard struggled to shoot late in Thursday’s 79-76 loss to Gonzaga.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
After a great run to that halftime edge, UCLA stumbled, fumbled and ultimately fell into a loss that ended with Strawther’s bomb but happened long before.
A game seemingly under control descended into the darkest trenches in the final 20 minutes with the Bruins having no idea how to salvage it. A brilliant effort turned into a smoldering wreck full of bricks, bad defense and regret.
They couldn’t make a shot, losing 11 straight at one point in the second half, going 11 minutes and 16 seconds without a field goal.
“We ran some really good sets … we got some really good looks … we just couldn’t get them in,” Campbell said.
UCLA couldn’t stop Gonzaga’s veteran center Drew Timme, who had 36 points and 13 rebounds.
Said Timm, “We are warriors.”
Jaquez said: “We tried to stop him, we couldn’t.”
The Bruins stopped sharing the ball, and were shooting wild shots on quick possessions. They stopped fighting for second chances, succumbing to the equally tough and veteran Zags.
“A lot of shots weren’t going down … wide shots,” said coach Mick Cronin, who also complained about the officiating. “We received a very strong whistle.”
Maybe the injuries finally caught up with them.
The best defensive player rode a scooter. Their best big man was sitting on the bench in street clothes. They counted when they lost Jaylen Clark for the season and they counted even more when they lost Adem Bona for parts of this tournament and guess what? Maybe the experts were right.
Bona would take care of Timme. And Clark, not a walk-on freshman Dylan Andrews, would guard Strawther more closely before the game-winning shot.
But maybe it was more than injuries. Perhaps Jaquez and Campbell finally tired of shouldering the heaviest load, as they shot a combined 17-of-41 from the field. In particular, Campbell and Singleton did not make a basket in the second half.
Gonzaga was feared as a powerhouse deflating UCLA, leading the nation with 11 straight wins and would severely test UCLA’s resolve with veteran talent.
Turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
The Bruins ended the first half with a 46-33 lead and a 9-1 lead in the turnover battle with an astounding seven possessions.
But Gonzaga fought back in the second half, riding Timme and Malachi Smith, winning the battle underneath, tied at 59 at the half.
UCLA suddenly lost everything. Gonzaga was suddenly taking it all.
Smith hit a floater to give Gonzaga a 61-59 lead with 8:52 left and suddenly chants of “UCLA” from the Bruins crowd that dominated the building were replaced by “Let’s go Zags!”
The battle continued into those final eight minutes, with Gonzaga taking a 10-point lead before Jaquez repeatedly drove and scored and UCLA came back. Almost Six seconds left.
All that was left was for a Gonzaga guard to drop a miracle from deep and throw UCLA deep.