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 in the span of a few breathless minutes Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena. That it came against a most aggravating antagonist compounded the agony.
The severely short-handed Bruins lost a 13-point lead to Gonzaga early in the second half of their NCAA tournament West Region semifinal, falling behind by 10 with just 2 minutes 40 seconds left. They stormed back, surging ahead by one on Amari Bailey’s fearless three-pointer with 14 seconds left.
All that, 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 Sallis and buried a 32-footer with six seconds left to lift third-seeded Gonzaga to a 79-76 victory over the second-seeded Bruins.
Amid the silent devastation of UCLA’s locker room, all the Bruins sat at their lockers wearing blank stares to go with the game jerseys they did not want to take off a half hour after the game ended.
“It’s pretty hard, coming back like that,” UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell said of not being able to complete the comeback in what might have been his final college game. “Yeah.”
UCLA (31-6) had two last chances to save its season. It couldn’t convert either.
His team down by two points, Campbell had the ball stripped for a rare turnover and the Bruins fouled Strawther, who missed the first free throw before making the second with three seconds left. The Bruins’ inbounds pass went to big man Kenneth Nwuba at midcourt, where he flung a pass to 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 against the same opponent. For a tantalizing moment, it had seemed they might have persevered through it all. That late 10-point deficit quickly disappeared thanks to a 14-3 run ending in Bailey’s three.
“All I was thinking was, get a stop,” Bailey said. “I mean, that’s what got us back in the game.”
Gonzaga called timeout. The Bruins realized they had not accomplished anything.
“I mean, there’s 12 seconds left on the clock,” UCLA senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said after finding his form anew in the final minutes and finishing with 29 points and 11 rebounds. “This is March. Anything can really happen.”
And did. UCLA coach Mick Cronin lamented that his defenders sagged off Strawther on his last shot after playing him tightly all game. After exhaling deeply, Gonzaga (31-5) will face fourth-seeded Connecticut in the regional final Saturday after the Huskies routed Arkansas by 23 in the earlier semifinal.
What started so well couldn’t have ended any worse for UCLA. Before their late push, the Bruins missed 11 consecutive field goals over an 11-minute stretch. Campbell and shooting guard David Singleton combined to miss all nine of their shots in 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.
“Coach was telling us we have to score on each possession or the game’s over,” Singleton said, “so that’s what we did.”
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’s big night was supplemented by Bailey (19 points) and Campbell (14 points, nine assists). It wasn’t enough for a team facing a deficit of sorts before tipoff. His team already missing top defender Jaylen Clark because of a leg injury, Cronin also did not play freshman center Adem Bona after he aggravated his shoulder injury against Northwestern in the second round. Backups Nwuba and Mac Etienne struggled to defend Timme amid a series of pump fakes and drop steps leading to easy baskets.
In the game’s early going it looked like the Bruins might end their Gonzaga hex, the Zags having prevailed in the last two NCAA tournament meetings between the teams in addition to a 20-point rout here last season. Cronin had shielded himself from the memory of Suggs earlier this week when he rewatched the 2021 Final Four loss, pressing pause before Suggs’ 40-footer banked off the backboard and through the net.
In a huge surprise, the teams played a frenetic first half and the pace favored UCLA. That’s because the Bruins were doing most of the running, their nine forced turnovers leading to 15 points.
Campbell pumped both arms in excitement after missing a jumper in the final seconds of the first half, an acknowledgment of his team’s nearly perfect play. The scoreboard told the story: UCLA 46, Gonzaga 33.
The lead would not hold up, Gonzaga finding more March magic. For the Bruins, there was only more suffering to come against the team that has delivered so much this time of year.