UCLA is unable to exorcise its Las Vegas demons

In a hard-fought Sweet 16 battle, UCLA squandered a double-digit lead to Gonzaga, took back the lead late only to fall on a long 3-point basket in the final seconds by Las Vegas' Julian Strawther.

LAS VEGAS — The way things were going, it appeared UCLA was on its way to finally having its Vegas demons exorcised.

The city had not been kind to the Bruins as Mick Cronin’s team was 2-3 this year at T-Mobile Arena. And when the Bruins took a 13-point lead into the locker room at halftime of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 battle with Gonzaga, maybe, just maybe, they would leave the floor a winner.

But Drew Timme, as he often does, had other ideas. The Bulldogs’ 6-foot-10 senior forward was virtually unstoppable as he, Malachi Smith and Julian Strawther led a Gonzaga comeback that saw that 13-point lead evaporate and had the Zags in front by double-digits late, then having to re-rally one final time in the closing seconds to secure a 79-76 win in front of a sellout crowd of 18,544 as Las Vegas hosted an NCAA basketball regional for the first time.

UCLA, which was looking to return to the Final Four after losing in the semifinals to Gonzaga in 2021, ended its season 31-6. 

With the win, Gonzaga advanced to Saturday’s Elite 8 showdown against fourth-seeded Connecticut, which demolished Arkansas 88-65 in Thursday’s first game.

A 14-0 run by UConn midway through the first half sealed the Razorbacks’ fate as Arkansas went scoreless for 4:39. Connecticut shot 61 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes in building a commanding 46-29 lead and there was simply no coming back for the No. 8-seeded Hogs and no need for Arkansas coach Eric Musselman to remove his shirt. 

Bruins coach Mick Cronin was hardly in a conciliatory mood. He wasn’t happy with the officiating in the second half. He wasn’t happy with the NCAA making him and his players wait over a half hour to fulfill their media obligations postgame. And he wasn’t happy with how things ended.

“There’s no hindsight,” he said when asked to reflect back on what happened. “Multiple shots didn’t go down. That and a lot of fouls weren’t called.”

To UCLA’s credit, it made one final push late to try and steal it. The Bruins took the lead, 76-75 on an Amari Bailey 3-pointer with 12.4 seconds remaining after Timme missed two free throws with 25.3 left which could’ve iced it for Gonzaga.

But Strawther, who grew up in Las Vegas and starred at Liberty High School, executed a play Mark Few had borrowed from former Villanova coach Jay Wright. The Bulldogs hustled into the front court, Strawther took a pass, and launched a 30-foot shot that went down with six seconds to go to get Gonzaga back in front, 78-76. He then made 1 of 2 free throws with 1.1 to go which was enough as Tyger Campbell’s desperartion 3-pointer to tie was off the mark.

“Villanova used that play to beat (North) Carolina,” Few said. “We practice it every day and (Strawther) usually makes it.”

UCLA was doing virtually everything right over the opening 20 minutes. Even Timme dominating wasn’t negatively impacting the Bruins. They were making more shots to offset Gonzaga’s All-America forward and despite 19 first-half points, Timme wasn’t going to beat UCLA by himself. And having a 46-33 lead should have had the Bruins brimming with confidence.

Still, Gonzaga hasn’t gotten to be the program it is by rolling over and waving a white flag. The Zags are a determined bunch and with Malachi Smith, Timme and Strawther rallying the team offensively and a collective improved effort at the defensive end of the floor, Gonzaga battled its way back.

UCLA was unable to score. The Bruins went more than 10 minutes without a field goal as Campbell and David Singleton failed to register a field goal in the second half.

“We ran some really good sets and got some really good looks,” said Campbell, who finished with 14 points. “But we just  weren’t able to knock them in. So I would say our drought was due to us taking good shots and us not making them.”

Timme was a handful for UCLA. He would finish with 36 points, two off his career high and when Gonzaga needed someone else to step up, it had Strawther, who would finish with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Smith, who ended up with 14 points.

“I think we tried our best to stop him,” Jaime Jaquez Jr., who scored a team-high 29 points, said of Timme. “We didn’t get it done.”

UCLA was without two key performers — Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona. But Cronin said that wasn’t an excuse for what happened Thursday. 

“We got outrebounded by 24, we had a tough whistle and our guards didn’t make a shot in the second half,” he said.

On a night where UCLA tried but couldn’t exorcise the demons of performing on the Las Vegas Strip, it probably could have used the help of a priest. Ironically, Gonzaga had the spiritual part covered. 

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