Plaschke: UCLA goes from brilliant to broke as history cruelly repeats itself vs. Gonzaga
Not again. Not again. Not again.
Two years later, another deep Gonzaga dare.
Two years later, another desperate UCLA stare.
Two years later, another dagger.
This can’t keep happening, can it? Gonzaga can’t keep beating UCLA in the final seconds of an NCAA tournament game with a basket out of nowhere, can it?
The unimaginable became real. The unthinkable became the incredible. The worst kind of UCLA history just repeated the hell out of itself.
With six seconds left in their Sweet 16 brawl Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, moments after the Bruins had fought back from a second-half collapse to take a one-point lead, Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther hit a 32-foot jumper from the top of the key to steal an unbelievable win, smother a raucous crowd, and stoke the sorriest of memories.
Dancing Zags. Crumpled Bruins. Season over. Just like that.
On the verge of victory against their most bedeviling of rivals, UCLA had suffered a 79-76 loss to end their real national title hopes with the rerun of a heartbreak.
“He hit a big shot,” said a pale and weary Jaime Jaquez Jr. “And we lost.”
Bruins fans have heard this 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 exact same thing, and how incredibly weird and unimaginable is that?
Although, two years ago, UCLA was a big underdog and the daunting defeat was the beginning of a three-year trek back to national relevance.
Thursday was different. For the senior trio of Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and David Singleton, it was not an exciting beginning, but the unsightly end of the road.
These Bruins were favored. These Bruins had taken a 13-point halftime lead. These Bruins had taken a one-point edge six seconds before Strawther’s shot on a three-pointer by freshman Amari Bailey.
Unlike two years ago, by being outscored by 16 points in the second half, the Bruins flat blew this game.
Their fight, so powerful for so long, suddenly faded.
Their teamwork, so smooth for so many seasons, suddenly broke.
Their experience, so important for this veteran team seemingly headed to the Final Four, suddenly deserted them.
After brilliantly racing to that halftime edge, UCLA stumbled, staggered and finally collapsed in a loss that ended with Strawther’s bomb but actually occurred long before that.
A game that was seemingly in control careened into the darkest of ditches in the last 20 minutes with the Bruins having no idea how to save themselves. A gleaming effort became a smoking wreckage filled with bricks, bad defense and regrets.
They couldn’t make a shot, missing 11 straight at one point in the second half, going 11 minutes, 16 seconds without a field goal.
“We ran some really good sets ... we got some really good looks ... we just weren’t able to knock them in,” Campbell said.
UCLA couldn’t stop Gonzaga’s veteran center Drew Timme, as he owned them for 36 points and 13 rebounds.
Said Timme: “We’re warriors."
Said Jaquez: “We tried our best to stop him, we didn’t get it done.”
The Bruins stopped sharing the ball, jacking up wild shots in hastened possessions. They stopped battling for second chances, submitting to the equally tough and veteran Zags.
“Lot of open shots didn’t go down ... wide-open shots,” said coach Mick Cronin, who also complained about the officiating. “We got a very tough whistle.”
Maybe the injuries finally caught up with them.
Their best defensive player was wheeling around on a scooter. Their best big man was sitting on the bench in street clothes. They were counted out when they lost Jaylen Clark for the season and were counted out even more when they lost Adem Bona for chunks of this tournament and guess what? Maybe the experts were right.
Bona would have guarded Timme. And Clark, not a wandering freshman Dylan Andrews, would have guarded Strawther tighter before that winning shot.
But maybe it was more than the injuries. Maybe Jaquez and Campbell finally grew weary of shouldering the heaviest of loads, as they shot a combined 17 of 41 from the field. In particular, Campbell and Singleton didn’t make a basket in the second half.
Gonzaga was feared as a UCLA-deflating powerhouse, with a nation-leading 11 consecutive wins and the kind of veteran talent that would severely test UCLA’s resolve.
Turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
The Bruins finished the first half with a 46-33 lead and a 9-1 edge in the turnover battle with an amazing seven steals.
But Gonzaga fought back in the second half, riding Timme and Malachi Smith, winning the battle underneath, tying it at 59-all midway through the half.
UCLA was suddenly missing everything. Gonzaga was suddenly grabbing everything.
Smith hit a floater that gave Gonzaga a 61-59 lead with 8:52 left and suddenly the cries of “U-C-L-A” from a Bruins crowd that dominated the building were replaced with, “Let’s Go Zags!”
The battle raged for those final eight minutes, Gonzaga actually taking a 10-point lead before Jaquez repeatedly drove and scored and brought UCLA back. Almost. Six seconds left.
All that was left was for a Gonzaga guard to throw in a miracle from the deep and hurl UCLA into the depths.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.