Friday, December 1, 2023

UCLA crumbles in second half of heartbreaking Sweet 16 loss to Gonzaga

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UCLA guard Amari Bailey walks off the court after the Bruins’ loss to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

LAS VEGAS — From on top of the college basketball world to deflated, momentarily back on top only to be heartbroken once more.

There couldn’t have been a bigger swing of emotions than UCLA experienced Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena against a most aggravating antagonist.

The Bruins lost a 13-point lead to Gonzaga early in the second half of their NCAA tournament West Regional semifinal, falling behind by 10. They stormed all the way back, surging ahead by one point on Amari Bailey’s fearless three-pointer with 12.4 seconds left.

Only to be undone by another dagger shot through the heart.

Two years after Jalen Suggs, there was Julian Strawther.

Trailing his teammates, Strawther took a flip pass from Hunter Salis and buried a 35-footer with six seconds left to lift third-seeded Gonzaga to a breathless 79-76 victory over the second-seeded Bruins.

UCLA had two more chances to save its season. It couldn’t convert either.

His team down by two points, UCLA’s Tyger Campbell had the ball stripped for a rare turnover and the Bruins fouled Strawther, who missed the first free throw and made the second. The Bruins’ inbounds pass went to big man Kenneth Nwuba at midcourt, where he found Campbell for a three-pointer at the buzzer that was off the side of the rim.

For the second time in three years, the Bruins’ season ended in the cruelest fashion. For a breathless moment, it had seemed they might have persevered through it all. Down by 10 points with 2:40 left, UCLA (31-6) ran off a 14-3 run ending in Bailey’s three-pointer. It wasn’t enough.

After exhaling deeply, Gonzaga (31-5) will play fourth-seeded Connecticut in the regional final Saturday after the Huskies routed Arkansas by 23 points in the earlier semifinal.

What started so well couldn’t have ended any worse for UCLA.

Before their late surge, the Bruins missed 11 consecutive field goals over one 11-minute stretch and made just two of 17 for a length part of the second half.

By the time Jaquez made a driving layup and was fouled with 1:14 left, his team was down 72-66 and in desperation mode.

The Bruins were outshot, 47.2% to 30%, in the second half while giving up 14 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points. Gonzaga’s Drew Timme was a bulldozer around the basket, finishing with 36 points and 13 rebounds.

Jaquez finished with 29 points on 12-for-25 shooting, Amari Bailey added 19 points and Tyger Campbell had 14.

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