Analysis: Baylor bullied Gonzaga to win national title

INDIANAPOLIS — The big, bad Baylor Bears bullied college basketball’s beautiful game into a corner.

The bid for an undefeated season, one game short. A first-time national champion, crowned.

Baylor overwhelmed Gonzaga with a burst of power and speed, winning its first national championship while ending the Bulldogs’ perfect season with an 86-70 victory on Monday night.

“Our guys, when the best is needed, the best is provided,” Baylor coach Scott Drew. “The better the opponent, the better they play.”

A two-year wait for a title game became the coronation of a team constructed to batter anything in its path, even the ultra-efficient Zags.

Gonzaga (31-1) appeared to feel the pressure of perfection and the fatigue – mentally and physically – from playing one of the most dramatic games in Final Four history less than 48 hours earlier.

The Bears (28-2) pounced with an onslaught of 3-pointers and blow-bys off the dribble, sprinkled with five sets of sliding feet and waving arms on defense.

“It’s a really really tough one to end a storybook season on, but listen, Baylor just beat us,” Mark Few said after Gonzaga’s second loss in the national title game the past three NCAA tournaments. “They beat us in every facet of the game and deserve all the credit.”

Baylor hit 10 3-pointers and turned 16 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points. All-American Jared Butler was the orchestrator, finishing with 22 points and seven assists.

Davion “Off Night” Mitchell spearheaded a defense that pressured the normally careful Zags into 14 turnovers and turned Gonzaga All-American Corey Kispert into a nonfactor.

The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers are still Division I’s last undefeated men’s team.

Baylor is the new king, 18 years after one of the darkest scandals the sport’s history. Drew, son of a Hall of Fame coach, was the architect, assembling a team of fast-footed, broad-shouldered Bears who ran through and around nearly every team in their path.

“It was just electrifying, especially in that type of environment in the big game,” Butler said. “Everybody was clicking on all cylinders and that’s what it takes to win.”

This highly anticipated match-up was supposed to be played in December, only to have COVID-19 force a cancellation. The wait turned out to be worth it, the two best teams all season – and the bracket’s top two seeds – each playing for its first national championship.

While Baylor cruised to another lopsided victory in the first Final Four game, UCLA laid out a possible blueprint of how to throw a wrench in the spokes of the Gonzaga machine. The Bruins made shots, lots of them, and that prevented the Zags from getting out in transition. They also played methodically on offense, refusing to run even when the opportunity arose. Gonzaga had to play UCLA shot for shot and won it in overtime on Jalen Suggs’ banked-in heave from th edge of the midcourt logo.

The Bears certainly had the shot-making part down.

Baylor’s quickness off the dribble gave the Zags fits, setting up shots at the basket or kickouts to the arc. Miss and the Bears grabbed offensive rebounds for putbacks. Even when Gonzaga had some brief success with a zone, Baylor solved it by getting the ball to deft-passing MaCio Teague in the high post.

The Bears had seven 3-pointers and nine offensive rebounds by halftime.

They also had the added caveat of being a defensive team unlike anything Gonzaga had seen, a flying force of springy, quick-footed defenders. Switching nearly every screen, Baylor kept the Zags in front of them and out of the lane. Their fast hands created turnovers, leading to shots in transition. When they did get beat, they blocked and altered shots at the rim.

“We couldn’t get anything going on either end,” Few said. “We couldn’t get consecutive stops on the defensive end and when we did get stops, it was really hard to generate offense consistently because, I mean, they were just so aggressive with their coverages defensively. We couldn’t get any rhythm there.”

Baylor opened the game with a 16-4 run and led by 19 at one point in the first half.

Gonzaga shot 1 for 8 from 3-point range, but managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 by halftime with aggressive play that led to 14 free throws (12 makes).

The Zags had a couple of early second-half opportunities to cut the lead to single digits. Every time they did, a missed shot, a big block or a Baylor bucket followed.

Gonzaga finally got the deficit down to nine. Just over a minute later it was 16.

“When you come up against a team like that, that’s firing on all cylinders for 40 minutes, it really hard to compete against,” Kispert said.

Then lead continued to grow, the cheers from the limited number of Baylor fans with it.

National champions at last.

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Alexander: Another UCLA victory in another crazy finish

Being the 11th Seed That Could is nice. But Mick Cronin noted Sunday night, after his UCLA Bruins knocked off Alabama, that just overachieving is hardly satisfactory.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, now you’ve been to an Elite Eight,’” he said. “That’s not why I came to UCLA. I’ve got a lot of friends in the NBA, and they make fun of people that have rings that say ‘Conference champion.’ There’s only one. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion.

“So for me, we’ve got to win three more games.”

They still have a chance. And now that UCLA is back in the Final Four, maybe we should stop being surprised.

They were ready for the moment again Tuesday night, beating No. 1 seed Michigan, 51-49, in a slog of a game that further demonstrated the resilience that has made UCLA just the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four. And while Cronin has repeated at each of his post-game news conferences during this run that all the credit should go to the players, those players are a reflection of the guy in charge.

“On April 9, 2019, I told you, I spell fun w-i-n,” Cronin said Tuesday night, a reference to the day he was hired at UCLA. “You have to find a way to win, and these guys are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their life back in that locker room because they won.

“I told them I was going to teach them how to win. And you have to be able to win different ways … to find a way to beat (Michigan) with defense the way we did tonight, I’m obviously extremely proud of our team. It was just resilience.”

Johnny Juzang, who shot the Bruins back into the game in the first half after they trailed 11-4, and finished with 28 points even after hurting his right ankle early in the second half and leaving the game briefly, is an L.A. guy who originally chose Kentucky but had no hesitation returning home to play for Cronin. The shooter and the defensive-minded coach wouldn’t seem to be a natural match, but Juzang said the idea of being coached hard appealed to him.

“There’s just something inexplainable. I just felt something about Coach,” he said. “I knew that he was hard. I knew that he was intense. I knew that he was defensive-minded, and those are things that drew me. I wanted that. I wanted to be pushed. … I knew that he would push me and hold me accountable and challenge me, and I wanted to play for a program where he does that for everybody.”

Consider that he left Kentucky, another of the sport’s blue-bloods.

Also consider that Kentucky missed the tournament, while UCLA knocked off the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in its region to get to the last Saturday. The last 11 seed to do that was LSU in 1986, led by former Crenshaw High star John Williams, which beat the top three seeds in its region.

These Bruins and those Tigers are two of only five No. 11 seeds ever to make it to the Final Four, joining George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011 – the first team to get there from the First Four – and Loyola-Chicago in 2018.

None of us had the heart during the postgame Zoom session to ask Cronin if he’d started looking ahead to Gonzaga, the undefeated overall  No. 1 seed that laid waste to USC’s Final Four chances in the first game of the evening.

But maybe the Bruins – having won two tourney games in overtime already – were paying close enough attention to that game to be reminded just how important it is to seize the moment. Gonzaga (30-0) took the initiative from the tipoff and USC was on its heels most of that game. In the nightcap, after Michigan (23-5) took its early 11-4 lead with UCLA making just 2 of 13 field-goal attempts, the Bruins (22-9) threw the next punch. Juzang scored 12 points in a 3:40 span to put his team in front, where it would stay most of the game.

The little things matter for this team, hugely, and a guy who didn’t score a point might have been indispensable. Kenneth Nwuba, the 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore from Lagos, Nigeria who had averaged 5.4 minutes in the 16 games he played, was on the court for 21 minutes after Cody Riley got into early foul difficulty. Nwuba had five rebounds, drew two charging fouls early in the game and was one of the guys Cronin was thinking of when he suggested that the stat sheet might as well be crumpled up.

“Kenny has never played that many minutes, I don’t think,” he said. “He dug deep for us – five big rebounds, great physicality, set some great screens. Again, stats can be overrated. Here is a guy that didn’t score but (the questioner) brought his name up for a reason. He had a big impact on the game physically.”

How big a milestone is this? UCLA will be in the Final Four for the first time since 2008 and the 19th time overall (though the 1980 appearance was vacated by the NCAA, so the official number is 18).

Cronin made it in his second season in Westwood. It took Ben Howland three years. It took John Wooden 14.

“I knew the expectations, right?” Cronin said. “I mean, it’s pretty clear at UCLA.

“I thank (former athletic director) Dan Guerrero for believing in me. I tried to convince him and the guys that were around him with this that I understood it and I wanted it. Coach (Rick) Pitino is like an older brother to me, and he used to say, ‘I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb.’ It’s like I told my father (Hep), ‘If I don’t take this job I’ll feel like a lamb.’”

Oh, he’s a lion all right. His players will attest to that, and so will any official within earshot after a questionable call.

That passion has gotten his team back to the Final Four. It already is a double-digit underdog to Gonzaga in Saturday’s semifinal, according to the experts in the desert. But would you really want to bet against UCLA’s toughness, resilience and stubbornness?

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Whicker: Another opponent disappears into USC’s zone of doom

  • Isaiah White #5 of the USC Trojans reacts in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen round game against in the USC Trojans the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

  • Oregon guard Chris Duarte (5) passes around Southern California guard Ethan Anderson, left, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard LJ Figueroa, right, passes around Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) drives up court ahead of Oregon forward Chandler Lawson, right, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Southern California guard Isaiah White (5) drives to the basket past Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi (2) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi, left, fights for a rebound with Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi, right, eyes a loose ball in front of Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard Chris Duarte (5) shoots over Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard Chris Duarte, center, shoots between Southern California guard Isaiah White, left, and forward Evan Mobley, right, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard Will Richardson drives ahead of Southern California guard Drew Peterson (13) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley shoots over Oregon guard Will Richardson (0) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Oregon guard Will Richardson drives to the basket ahead of Southern California guard Drew Peterson, left, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy shoots over Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi (2) during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy (2) drives between Oregon guard LJ Figueroa, left, and guard Will Richardson, right, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon head coach Dana Altman watches from the bench during the first half of a Sweet 16 game against Southern California in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard LJ Figueroa (12) shoots over Southern California guard Isaiah White, left, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi, center, fights for a rebound with Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) and forward Chevez Goodwin (1) during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy drives to the basket ahead of Oregon center Franck Kepnang, left, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Isaiah White #5 of the USC Trojans reacts to a play against the Oregon Ducks in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

  • Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) shoots over Oregon forward Eugene Omoruyi (2) during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard Will Richardson, right, drives up court in front of Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy (2) during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) drives to the basket ahead of Oregon forward Eric Williams Jr., left, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California guard Isaiah White (5) shoots over Oregon guard Will Richardson (0) during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California guard Isaiah White celebrates after making a basket during the first half of a Sweet 16 game against Oregon in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard Chris Duarte drives to the basket past Southern California guard Isaiah White, right, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Oregon guard LJ Figueroa (12) tries to steal the ball from Southern California guard Isaiah White, left, during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

  • Southern California forward Evan Mobley (4) fights for the opening tipoff with Oregon guard LJ Figueroa (12) during the first half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Oregon guard LJ Figueroa (12) loses the ball over Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley, left, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Southern California guard Drew Peterson celebrates after making a 3-point basket during the second half of a Sweet 16 game against Oregon in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Southern California guard Drew Peterson (13) passes ahead of Oregon guard Will Richardson, left, during the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Drew Peterson #13 of the USC Trojans reacts in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen round game against the Oregon Ducks in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

  • Drew Peterson #13 of the USC Trojans reacts to a foul call in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen round game against the Oregon Ducks in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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Well, at least the Pac-12 regular-season championship is put to bed.

USC broke the virtual tie with Oregon and, for the second time this season, broke everything else the Ducks had planned.

This 82-68 win will be better-known as the ramp to the regional finals for the Trojans, who will see undefeated Gonzaga at the top of it Tuesday night..

It came atop the 72-58 win over the Ducks in Galen Center on Feb. 22, one in which the Trojans led 15-0 and by 21 at the half without Isaiah Mobley. This one was nearly as routine, although the no-quit Ducks hassled USC with their pressure defense in the second half and actually made USC coach Andy Enfield call a time out under duress.

Although Isaiah White and Tahj Eaddy pushed the Trojans ahead in the first half with their shooting, the two signature moments came from the Mobley family.

Isaiah took an inbounds pass against Oregon’s press and sauntered 70 feet for a reverse dunk. Evan, who had been a sedate presence until then, took advantage of a defensive gamble and tickled all the seismographs in the Midwest with a two-hand jam, one that he will replicate on a weekly basis, at least, for some lottery-bound NBA franchise next season.

But the Trojans really won with a zone defense that is becoming Enfield’s weapon of choice. With 6-foot-8 Drew Peterson on the point and with the Mobleys standing back there like library lions, Oregon was flummoxed enough to shoot 30 percent in the first half.

It was leading 10-9 when USC went into the zone and got a bucket on the first possession against it. The Trojans then scored 12 of the next 14 points, over a span of 4:05, and the Ducks missed seven consecutive shots. In the half, Oregon missed six of 10 layups in this claustrophobia-inducing setting, and because the Trojans were stroking their 3-pointers so consistently, the Ducks couldn’t find the speed game they needed.

It’s the type of zone that makes USC look so futuristic. The basketball authorities haven’t made the court any wider over the years, so when folks like Eaddy and Peterson and Isaiah White are sprinting out to hassle the shooters. That’s how you force so many offensive shoes to land on the sideline, a 21st-century type of turnover that comes from such wide spacing.

“The energy of March Madness and the crowd,” explained White, the transfer from Utah Valley.  “We know what’s at stake every time we come out on the floor.”

So far White and the other shooters have prevented the Trojans’ foul shooting maladies from catching up. And if the Trojans keep winning games by an average margin of 21 points, their immunity will hold.

As usual, USC opened with man-to-man defense, which is Enfield’s usual preference. He also knew Plan B wouldn’t be far away.

“They have five forwards and guards, and we have two bigs in the game,” Enfield said. “I really don’t think we can guard them man-to-man, because all five of them can shoot the ball from outside. We don’t want to bring our bigs away from the basket.  It’s hard to chase those guys all over the perimeter and we didn’t want to switch all of their ball screens, so we were able to get out on those shooters and still be strong inside. Then we just rotated our wings as we went along.”

Zones often dominate the tournament, as anyone who has played Syracuse in March can testify. Teams have little time to prepare for the ball movement that’s demanded, and they can’t really replicate what it looks like in real life.

“We probably played man-to-man 90 percent of the time during the season,” Enfield said. “But in the tournament we’ve played, we’ve played three similar teams. We went to the zone out of necessity against all their shooters.. I don’t like going small too often, and our man-to-man has been terrific most of the year. It’s basically because of the matchups we’ve had.

“We didn’t practice it for maybe a month before the tournament. Now we’re got better and better because we’ve played it so much.”

Drake, Kansas and Oregon have shot 32.1 percent, or missed 67.9 percent, in these tournament losses to USC. Which brings us to the creature at the top of the ramp.

Gonzaga shot 49 percent in its second round win over Wisconsin. That was their worst — repeat, worst — shooting performance of its undefeated season.

On Tuesday, Gonzaga’s year-long Hot Zone intersects with a hot zone. Only one can escape.

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Alexander: For the UCLA women, a rough end to a magnificent season

The word that UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close said defined her team in 2020-21 was “perspective.”

It’s hard to keep that perspective when your season ends so suddenly, and emphatically, in the NCAA Tournament. A dreadful second quarter, including a 6:20 scoring drought, forced the Bruins to chase the game Wednesday night, and a 1-for-19 3-point shooting night was their albatross as they attempted to rally.

But after a 71-62 loss to Texas at San Antonio’s Alamodome ended their journey one stop short of the Sweet 16, Close reflected on the things that made this collection of players special, the things that she will miss most.

It was a weird season for everybody but it was especially challenging for UCLA (17-6), which played with a short roster all season. Players were hurt, and players who were expected to join the Bruins couldn’t. That included Australian players Izzy Anstey and Gemma Potter, part of a group of athletes who went to court to try to overturn a decision that deferred their immigration certification – and basically kept them out of the country – because their school wasn’t holding in-person classes. The suit was dismissed earlier this month, and by then Potter had given up and signed with an Australian professional team.

The Bruins’ postseason roster was 10 players, and one of those, Dominique Darius, joined at mid-year shortly after her high school graduation.

“There’s no way to put all this into words, this unprecedented year,” Close said, ticking off their late start (Sept. 21) and the players who were unavailable. But then she got to the heart of the story:

“This team just never, never had any excuses. Things just kept happening and they just kept staying committed. I asked them to do two things all year. I asked them to find ways, as nontraditional as they might be, to grow each day, to intentionally grow, and to bring joy despite the circumstances. We were going to choose joy, no matter what.

“And as I sat there tonight,” she added, choking back tears, “I looked at ’em and I had to say, ‘You did your part.’ They kept finding ways to grow. They kept finding ways to give to each other and to bring joy, the way they impacted the people around them, the way they invested in each other, in our community, through the issues of the pandemic and the sacrifices they made. … Right now it just stings so much, but I think when we are able to really look back and have some perspective, we’re going to have a lot of victories to count.”

A prime example came from UCLA’s best player, Michaela Onyenwere, and it had nothing to do with points or rebounds. It was during a practice at the University of Texas before the Bruins’ first-round game against Wyoming. And it came at a time when the NCAA was catching all sorts of flak from those both inside the game and out, because of the severe differences between what the women’s players and teams were provided and what the men were getting in Indianapolis.

Yet as Close described it, Onyenwere graciously stopped and thanked the administrators on-site for their efforts to make it work.

“That’s Michaela,” Close said. “She’s an incredible basketball player … the years ahead of her are going to be unbelievable, and she’s just scratching the surface of how good she’s going to be. But the most amazing thing about her is it’s not even close to the kind of person she is, the kind of teammate she is, the kind of woman she is. And I just feel like I’m the luckiest head coach in the country, that I got the chance to be a part of her life.”

Onyenwere’s 21 points Wednesday night moved her into fourth on UCLA’s all-time women’s scoring list behind Denise Curry (3,198), Jordin Canada (2,153) and Maylana Martin (2,101). She’s a senior but could come back for another year by NCAA edict, and said she would make that decision “soon.” But she was choking back sobs during her brief media availability.

“I think UCLA has had everything to do with the player that I am and the person that I am today,” she said. “As Coach Cori said, this game doesn’t define our season and how hard we work, and just how tough we had to be this year. So I’m incredibly proud of my team this year. I’m incredibly proud to have the honor to go to UCLA and have the experiences that I did.

“Yeah, today was rough. But I’m extremely grateful for everything that UCLA has given me.”

UCLA is 143-50 over the last six seasons, playing in as rugged a women’s basketball conference as there is. The job now is to build on that, but Close made it clear it won’t be just about basketball.

“We’re also going to relentlessly create an uncommon transformational experience for young women that teaches, mentors and equips them for life beyond UCLA, and that will never be compromised,” she said.

“I want our players to have both. I want them to be able to hang banners and I want them to be able to experience competitive greatness. But I want it to always be as a byproduct of the work that’s done in the dark, and the work that comes from within and then overflows into what happens out on the court.”

The banners are indeed important. But when your players leave campus prepared to not only handle life but to lead, those are victories, too.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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UCLA women’s basketball feels well prepared for Wyoming

The UCLA women’s basketball team is used to dealing with the bare minimum this season, having a shortened bench of eight players, give or take. But bare minimum took on a whole new meaning after the Bruins saw the women’s designated weight room for the NCAA Tournament.

True to the images circulating on social media, the women’s teams were given a spartan arrangement, with a rack of dumbbells and sanitized yoga mats. Meanwhile, the men’s teams were given a large room filled with benches, squat racks — any equipment that might be required.

An effective work environment is essential in any occupation, but for teams like UCLA, which will play Wyoming in the first round of the tournament on Monday, the NCAA’s setup didn’t cut it.

“Different programs do different things for different weight programs,” said senior Michaela Onyenwere. “We might be different than the next team and how we’re going to use that room, but we didn’t really even have a choice because we didn’t have the resources because we were an afterthought.”

For the Bruins’ small roster, the weight room won’t affect the postseason regiment too much. They’re also trying not to be bothered by the differences in food quality, swag bag items and other external factors related to the tournament as they prepare for Wyoming.

UCLA earned the No. 3 seed in the Hemisfair Region on an at-large bid after finishing as runner-up behind Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Tournament. Wyoming, the No. 14-seed, won the Mountain West Tournament as a No. 7 seed and is riding a six-game win streak heading into the NCAA Tournament.

It will be the first meeting between the Bruins (16-5) and the Cowgirls (14-9), but Coach Cori Close feels well prepared for any situation after the Pac-12 season.

“When we started talking about their sort of spread offense and their motion offense, we were able to say OK, it’s sort of like Colorado in this way, it’s like Utah in this way,” she said. “We just have such vast styles of play in the Pac-12, but it’s at such a high level, so you’re already forced to be exposed to so many things.”

McKinley Bradshaw leads Wyoming in scoring with 11.5 points per game and is 33-for-79 from beyond the arc. Quinn Weidemann and Alba Sanchez Ramos each have double-digit scoring averages as well, with Weidemann clicking at 11 ppg and Sanchez Ramos at 10.1 ppg in addition to a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game.

Onyenwere is UCLA’s top-scoring player. Her 18.7 ppg have helped move her to sixth in program history in career points with 1,842. In terms of scoring this season, she’s followed by Charisma Osborne (17 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Natalie Chou (10 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

Tipoff for the Bruins’ first-round game is set for Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN at the Frank Irwin Center in Austin, Texas. No matter how small the weight room or how limited the food selection and quality, Close expects her team to remain focused.

“What I don’t want to have happen is any of the extraneous things on the outside to distract from this incredible experience that these student-athletes have worked so hard for,” Close said. “So, I’m excited to compete, to get better and to continue to enjoy with great gratitude.”

UCLA (16-5) vs. Wyoming (14-9)

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Frank Irwin Center, Austin, Texas

TV: ESPN

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Whicker: Against USC’s Evan Mobley, Drake couldn’t find a lane to stay in

Paint removal is not the most fun aspect of spring cleaning. In that sense, USC and Galen Center are fortunate.

They don’t need a heat gun or sandpaper. They don’t even have to wander through the forbidding aisles of your favorite big-box store, in search of a remedy.

They have Evan Mobley.

They will not have him long, but they’ve known that all season. On Saturday, the freshman vaporized the lane and took away Darnell Brodie, who goes 6-foot-10, 270. Mobley stripped away the paint so effortlessly that his fellow Trojans joined in, and eventually Drake was reduced to long-range bombing, which worked in the first half of this NCAA tournament first round game but dissipated in the second.

USC wound up handling the tricky 6 vs. 11 matchup better than most, winning 72-56, and will graduate to a matchup with Kansas on Monday.

Brodie, a transfer from Seton Hall, missed 10 of 13 shots, and most of those misses were persuaded by either Evan or his brother Isaiah or Chevez Goodwin. Only 16 of Drake’s 56 points came in the lane, and only 12 of Drake’s 20 baskets came from someone other than Joseph Yesufu, who had 18 in the first half but was 2-for-10 in the second.

At one point the Bulldogs clunked 22 of 24 attempts, including nine of nine 3-pointers. But Mobley established the theme.

The obvious game plan is to nudge him into foul trouble, which is usually accomplished through head and ball fakes. Mobley has learned to keep his feet on the ground but even when he doesn’t, he is able to land without violating anyone’s airspace, and he never compromises his wingspan.

He is a “big” who plays big, in other words, and that is not an everyday sight in modern college basketball.

“He’s improved every week,” said coach Andy Enfield. “He has guarded physical bigs, athletic bigs, bigs with a lot of skill. And he’s able to put pressure on them offensively too.”

Mobley has played 1,020 minutes this season. He has committed only 53 fouls. The list of post defenders who have more blocks (90) and assists (76) than fouls is not a long one.

“In the college game, there are a lot more details on defense,” Mobley said. “I just try to use what the coaches teach me. I have a tendency to get jumpy at times. If I stay down I can still contest the shot if not block it.”

Five USC players combined for seven blocks, which doesn’t account for all the shots influenced, redirected or simply discouraged. One of those blocks came in the final minute from Joshua Morgan, the transfer from Long Beach State, and might have been Enfield’s way of reminding people that he has more paint-removal tools after Mobley gets away.

Max Agbonkpolo, the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Santa Margarita, is known as a potential scorer. He couldn’t resist the reject-a-thon either. He went high to try to block one dunk, although he was whistled for a foul.

“I thought he was outstanding, especially in our zone,” Enfield said. “He was very active. He’s got long arms and a great first-step. When we went to zone, he was in the game for a reason.”

As Enfield mentioned, it was reasonable to expect Drake to laugh now, cry later, due to its Thursday night First Four win over Wichita State. The Bulldogs had one night of recovery, and USC’s previous game was a Pac-12 tournament loss to Colorado eight days prior.

The game also demonstrated how USC can prosper if even one secondary scorer shows up. In this game it was Drew Peterson, who got to the hoop against Drake’s smaller guards and scored 14 on 5-of-10 shooting.

And it was another case of the Trojans overcoming their own free-throwing, which, in this game, was 8-for-15.

“It’s frustrating when good free-throw shooters miss,” Enfield said, “but we’re actually pretty good except for a couple of guys (Isaiah Mobley and Chevez Goodwin), and they’re improving.

“Tonight Evan was 2-for-4. But I wasn’t going to take him out.”

Kansas, which finally shook off Eastern Washington’s challenge, will be a tougher project. David McCormick is a 6-foot-10, 265-pound strongman who scored 22 on Eastern Washington.

But the Jayhawks have been plagued by COVID-19 in the short term and an investigation into what NCAA officials called “egregious” recruiting crimes in the long term. They haven’t lived up to their brand this season, and they gave up 35 points to EWU center Tanner Groves on Saturday.

A win would give USC a Final 16 appearance. It hasn’t done that in 14 years. The older the paint, the harder the scrape.

 

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Abilene Christian stuns Texas, caps upset-heavy first round

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Abilene Christian and its frantic, havoc-causing defense bounced coach Shaka Smart and Texas out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round yet again, as the 14th-seeded Wildcats stunned the third-seeded Longhorns 53-52 on Saturday night.

Joe Pleasant, a 58.8% foul shooter on the season, made two free throws with 1.2 seconds left, and the Wildcats took down their in-state rivals in the first meeting between the schools.

Pulling off one final upset in a first round filled with two years’ worth of excitement, Abilene Christian became the fourth team seeded 13th or lower to reach the round of 32 in this NCAA Tournament.

The pesky Wildcats caused headaches for the bigger, more talented Longhorns all night and got just enough offense to earn their first NCAA Tournament victory in their second appearance.

Pleasant finished with 11 points as did Coryon Mason for the Wildcats, who forced 23 turnovers. Abilene Christian (24-4) will face No. 11 seed UCLA in the second round Monday.

Andrew Jones scored 13 points for Texas (19-8) and was nearly the hero. Jones hit two free throws with 56 seconds left and his 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining put the Longhorns in front 52-51.

ACU had one more chance. Damien Daniels drove to the basket but his shot was blocked by Kai Jones. Pleasant grabbed the rebound and Matt Coleman III was called for a foul. Pleasant stepped to the line and calmly sank both, then picked off Texas’ final desperation pass at midcourt to hand the Longhorns their third first-round exit under Smart.

MICHIGAN 82, TEXAS SOUTHERN 66

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Juwan Howard won his first NCAA Tournament game since taking over as Michigan’s coach, guiding Mike Smith and the top-seeded Wolverines past Texas Southern.

Smith scored 18 points and Hunter Dickinson added 16 as Michigan rolled into the second round without Isaiah Livers, who is out with a foot injury. Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns Jr. had 11 points apiece.

Howard is back in the tournament for the first time since his stellar playing career with Michigan, including back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1992 and 1993. It’s his second season in charge, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

Howard and the Wolverines (21-4) had little trouble with the No 16 seed Texas Southern, but the absence of Livers could lead to adversity down the road. Next up is No 8 seed LSU on Monday.

Michael Weathers had 24 points for the Tigers (17-9).

LSU 76, ST. BONAVENTURE 61

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Freshman Cameron Thomas scored 27 points in another impressive performance and his LSU teammates provided the rebounding muscle, leading the eighth-seeded Tigers past ninth-seeded St. Bonaventure.

LSU (19-9) can reach its second straight Sweet 16 if it beats Michigan.

Darius Days and Aundre Hyatt each had 13 points and Trendon Watford had 11. Days and Watford also had 11 rebounds each while Hyatt grabbed 10. The Tigers have won five of six.

Jaren Holmes scored 18 points and Osun Osunniyi had 15 points and nine rebounds for St. Bonaventure (16-5).

COLORADO 96, GEORGETOWN 73

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colorado used an early 3-point barrage to parlay its highest seeding ever into a win over Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing.

Led by freshman Jabari Walker’s 5-for-5 shooting clinic from 3-point range, the fifth-seeded Buffs (23-8) made 16 3-pointers and shot 64% from long range.

Walker missed only one of his 10 shots on his way to a career-best 24 points, and D’Shawn Schwartz (18 points) made four of his five 3s in the first half to put Colorado into cruise control. The Buffs made the round of 32 for only the third time since the brackets expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They will face fourth-seeded Florida State.

Georgetown won four games in four days earlier this month to take the Big East Tournament title and make a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament. But the Hoyas finished 13-13 on the season. Qudus Wahab led Georgetown with 20 points.

FLORIDA STATE 64, UNC GREENSBORO 54

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — RaiQuan Gray scored 17 points and Florida State began what it hopes will be another deep run under coach Leonard Hamilton, holding off 13th-seeded UNC Greensboro.

The Seminoles, who reached the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 in the previous two tournaments, allowed the Spartans to hang around deep into the second half thanks to an uneven offensive performance.

Florida State went 0 for 9 from 3-point range, winning a game without a made 3 for the first time since February 2018. The Seminoles still managed to shoot 50% overall.

Balsa Koprivica had 13 points and nine rebounds and Anthony Polite added 12 points for the Seminoles.

Isaiah Miller scored 17 points and Keyshaun Langley added 16 for Greensboro (21-9), which was seeking its first tournament win.

MARYLAND 63, UCONN 54

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Eric Ayala scored 23 points and 10th-seeded Maryland clamped down on defense down the stretch to beat No. 7 seed UConn.

The 10th-seeded Terrapins held UConn to 32% shooting to overcome the Huskies’ strong physical game. Maryland was outrebounded 40-29 but its defense carried the Terps to a second-round matchup against second-seeded Alabama.

Maryland (17-13) shot 51% for the game and converted 9 of 18 from behind the arc.

Aaron Wiggins had 14 points and Donta Scott 12 for Maryland.

James Bouknight had 15 points and Jalen Gaffney 12 for the Huskies (15-8), who won five of their last six games to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016.

ALABAMA 68, IONA 55

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Herb Jones scored 20 points and second-seeded Alabama pried open a tight game to beat coach Rick Pitino’s underdogs from Iona.

Jones had a steal and layup that highlighted an 11-0 run and gave Alabama (25-6) breathing room at 54-46 after the teams seesawed with the lead through much of the second half.

Even though he came in with his highest seeding ever — a 15 — Pitino came to Indy with eight suits and at least a glimmer of hope he might use more than one.

Isaiah Ross scored 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting for the Gaels (12-6). The rest of the team went 15 for 41.

WEST

GONZAGA 98, NORFOLK STATE 55

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Corey Kispert scored 15 of his 23 points by halftime and No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga rolled in its opener, beating Norfolk State.

Anton Watson had 17 points on 7-for-7 shooting for the Bulldogs (27-0), who shook off a slow few opening minutes and easily handled the 16th-seeded Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions.

Next up for the undefeated Zags is eighth-seeded Oklahoma in the second round of the West Region.

Gonzaga led by 22 points before the break and kept stretching the lead after halftime. It has won 31 straight dating to last season.

Devante Carter and Kyonze Chavis each scored 12 points for the Spartans (17-8), who had won seven straight.

OKLAHOMA 72, MISSOURI 68

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Austin Reaves scored 23 points, Brady Manek added 19 and Oklahoma slipped by ninth-seeded Missouri.

The eighth-seeded Sooners (16-10) are on to the second round for fourth time in the last six tournaments.

The Sooners pulled out to an eight-point lead with 1:08 left behind Reaves’ free-throw shooting, but Dru Smith made two 3-pointers in the final minute to keep the pressure on and pull Missouri within 70-67 with 46.7 left.

Smith led the Tigers (16-10) with 20 points.

Reaves missed a jumper and Missouri got a possession to tie with 17 seconds to go, but the Tigers never managed to get off a 3-pointer, in part because Elijah Harkless committed a smart foul with 2.1 seconds left.

CREIGHTON 63, UC SANTA BARBARA 62

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Christian Bishop made both ends of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left to give fifth-seeded Creighton the lead, and the Bluejays hung on to beat 12th-seeded UC Santa Barbara.

Creighton’s turbulent season, which included a one-game suspension for coach Greg McDermott after he made a racially insensitive remark in the locker room, continues Monday in the West Region when the Bluejays (21-8) face 13th-seeded Ohio.

Bishop was fouled by Amadou Sow on the floor after grabbing an offensive rebound and went to the line with the Gauchos (22-5) up 62-61.

The junior came into the game making 57% from the line, but dropped in both, barely touching the rim.

JaQuori McLaughlin had a chance to put the Gauchos back on top but couldn’t finish at the rim. He led UCSB with 13 points.

OHIO 62, VIRGINIA 58

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Virginia’s unusual title defense ended with another upset loss, falling 62-58 to Jason Preston and Ohio.

The fourth-seeded Cavaliers struggled to score during a key stretch in the second half and shot 35% from the field for the game. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to drop its opening game in the NCAA Tournament when it lost to UMBC in 2018, but it used the setback as motivation in its run to the championship in 2019.

Last year’s NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic, delaying the Cavaliers’ title defense. They just arrived in Indiana on Friday because of COVID-19 issues, and now they are heading home again.

Preston and Ben Vander Plas delivered for Ohio (17-7) after leading the Bobcats to the Mid-American Conference Tournament title.

Vander Plas scored 17 points and Preston finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

Sam Hauser had 15 points and nine rebounds for Virginia (18-7).

KANSAS 73, EASTERN WASHINGTON 84

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — David McCormack returned from his COVID-19-caused hiatus just in time to rescue No. 3 seed Kansas, piling up 22 points and nine rebounds as the slow-starting Jayhawks rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat No. 14 seed Eastern Washington.

Ochai Agbaji scored 21 points, Marcus Garrett fought foul trouble to add 20 and Dajuan Harris Jr. had 13 for the Jayhawks (21-8).

Tanner Groves scored a career-high 35 points and younger brother Jacob Groves had 23 for the Eagles (16-8), whose third trip to the NCAA Tournament ended just as quickly as the first two — though not without putting up a fight.

IOWA 86, GRAND CANYON 74

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Iowa got 24 points from Luka Garza and avoided the early NCAA Tournament exit that befell other high seeds, beating Grand Canyon.

The second-seeded Hawkeyes (22-8) used a strong shooting display to advance.

Iowa shot the Antelopes and their boisterous fans back to the desert, hitting 54% from the floor while going 10 of 22 from behind the arc.

Joe Wieskamp added 16 points to help lead the Hawkeyes into the next round Monday against Oregon, which advanced after Virginia Commonwealth became the first team to bow out of the bracket due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Asbjorn Midtgaard had 18 points and Jovan Blacksher Jr. scored 15 for Grand Canyon (17-7).

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Alexander: These UCLA Bruins certainly are not in ruins

  • UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) takes a shot over BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU center Richard Harward (42) grabs a rebound as teammate Caleb Lohner (33) and UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) close in during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) reacts to a foul called during the second half of a first-round game against UCLA in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) reaches for a rebound with UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) and BYU forward Caleb Lohner, second from left, and BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA head coach Mick Cronin directs his team during the second half of a first-round game against BYU in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA guard Johnny Juzang (3) takes a three point shot as BYU forward Gideon George (5) defends during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) drives past BYU forward Caleb Lohner (33) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) battles for the ball with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, as UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) closes in during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) battles for the ball with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, as UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) closes in during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA guard David Singleton (34) drives past BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) goes up for a shot as BYU guard Connor Harding (44) and teammate Richard Harward (42) defend during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) battles for the ball with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, as UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) closes in during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) gets screened out by UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) as he tries to defend UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Spencer Johnson (20) looks to shoot the ball in front of UCLA forward Mac Etienne, right, during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) shoots over UCLA forward Mac Etienne (12) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU head coach Mark Pope directs his team during the first half of a first-round game against UCLA in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Spencer Johnson (20) drives past UCLA guard Johnny Juzang (3) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU forward Caleb Lohner (33) looks for help as UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) closes in during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU forward Matt Haarms, left, battles for a rebound with UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) and teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU forward Caleb Lohner (33) battles for a rebound with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) drives past UCLA forward Mac Etienne (12) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • A reflection of BYU and UCLA teams warm up as fans watch in a reflection prior to a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) goes up for the tipoff with UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • UCLA players prepare for a first-round game against BYU in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

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Tell me you weren’t expecting this, UCLA fan.

Or maybe I should put it another way. Up until the Bruins arrived at the arena in Boulder, Colo., on Feb. 27, their supporters had reason to expect a nice tournament run. UCLA was 17-4, had a shot at the regular-season Pac-12 title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament …

… and then it all went blooey. Four straight losses, blown leads, an early exit in the Pac-12 tournament at the hands of Oregon State, and all of a sudden the pearl clutchers had a lot of pearls to clutch.

So what to make of this weekend? The team that couldn’t hold a lead in the final three weeks of the regular year, the one that was painful to watch at times in the first half of Thursday night’s 11th seed play-in against Michigan State, blew past the Spartans in the second half. Then they blew past BYU in the first half Saturday, thanks to Johnny Juzang, and they’ll be playing in the round of 32 Monday night.

This is why we watch. Consider that the Oregon State team that knocked off the Bruins in Las Vegas won the conference tournament and, likewise is in the NCAA round of 32. As is Colorado. As is USC. And as is Oregon, the last of which is a reminder that nothing is guaranteed in Pandemic Basketball after Virginia Commonwealth, Oregon’s opponent, was ruled out Saturday because of what were described as multiple positive COVID-19 tests.

Maybe that 5-0 start by the Pac-12 this weekend, not including Oregon’s walkover, should have sent a message to the rest of the country.

“You’re finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “And some people ought to be ashamed of themselves.

“Now, you know, maybe people can’t stay up late and I don’t blame them because I can’t either. Where I live, the sun shines all day and it comes up early. So I get up early. So maybe people can’t stay up for our games. But I’ve been doing this a long time. And, you know, back in 2011, I coached in a league (the Big East) where 11 teams made the NCAA tournament. The national champion (Connecticut) finished in a tie for ninth, 10th and 11th.

“So I know good teams. Oregon State, Oregon, Colorado, USC, you know, those teams winning is just not a surprise at all. It’s just not a surprise.”

The four teams the Bruins lost to at the end of the season: Colorado on the road by 9, Oregon on the road by 8 (in a game that had been postponed twice and was plopped into the final week schedule almost at the last minute), USC by a point and Oregon State by 4 in overtime in ‘Vegas.

Each of those could be around a while. And in UCLA’s case, the chances of the magic continuing seemed to have brightened while Cronin was still answering questions in the postgame Zoom session. No. 14 seed Abilene Christian, a program that has only been playing on the Division I level since the 2013-14 season, knocked off Texas 53-52, which means a team that didn’t become eligible for NCAA championship competition until 2018 will be playing a team that, as Cronin noted, practices in a gym with 11 championship banners on the wall.

Then again … Cronin said that assistant Darren Sorvino, who was assigned to keep an eye on Abilene Christian, predicted the Wildcats would take out Texas.

“And I turned to T.J. Wolf on my staff, and he said, ‘Coach, he’s right. They force 20 turnovers a game. They’re really, really good.’ That was just in passing,” Cronin said.

“So obviously they have a great coach (Joe Golding). Somebody forces 20 turnovers a game, that’s unbelievable. Somebody just told me Texas had 23 turnovers. And they got senior — they got (Andrew) Jones, (Courtney) Ramey. They’ve got serious guards now, Matt Coleman. And they turn the ball over that many times? That means Abilene Christian is really, really good. That’s all I can say.”

Challenges are good, and that stat will be a way to make sure Cronin has the attention of his players on the practice floor Sunday.

As it was, the Bruins – with their lineup of three sophomores and two juniors and no seniors on the active roster – could have had a chip on their collective shoulder after being relegated to the First Four, but Juzang said it was just a matter of having another chance to “go out and compete.” Now it’s a matter of continuing to earn themselves additional chances.

What came out of Saturday night’s game? UCLA’s defensive play made sure the vaunted BYU explosiveness (78.7 points a game and a 10.3 point average margin of victory) didn’t materialize, aside from some long-range shooting by Alex Barcello (20 points on 9 of 17 shooting, though he was 2 of 6 on 3-pointers) and a first step by 5-11 Brandon Averette that continually allowed him to blow by Bruins defenders en route to a 15-point night.

Juzang scored 19 of his 27 points before halftime to help the Bruins to a comfort level they maintained for most of the game, even after BYU trimmed what had been a 13-point lead to four early in the second half.

And with 50 points in his first two tournament games Juzang joined rare company. The only two UCLA players with more points in their first two tournament games – and remember, this is a lot of players over a lot of games – remain Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who was known as Lew Alcindor when he scored 67 points in his first two games in 1967), and Reggie Miller (56 points in 1987). Juzang passed Willie Naulls (49 in 1956) on the all-time list.

“Those are some legendary names,” Juzang said. “So it’s an honor to be mentioned with them, no doubt.”

But then he added this: “We’re not done. We’re not finished. I’m happy I’ve been able to contribute in that category. But, you know, we’re not satisfied … We don’t plan on going home.”

This could be far more invigorating a March than the Bruin faithful had reason to hope for two weeks ago during that four-game losing streak.

“Playing good teams can either kill you, or it makes you better,” Cronin said.

In this case, let’s say it was Plan B.

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Whicker: Beat-up UCLA rallies to beat Michigan State in night of validation

Mick Cronin had not seen John Wooden’s statue yet, the one that sits outside Purdue’s Mackey Arena, just in front of the Pyramid of Success. UCLA hadn’t reached West Lafayette, Indiana until 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night for practice, and the Bruins were herded through the halls without a chance to wander.

Nowadays, Wooden’s image is a good omen for those who follow him. It used to peer through thick glasses, disapprovingly, when the first successors fell short of ultimate victory, but nearly everyone understands that 46 years have changed things. Wooden now is a reminder that UCLA once could do this, rather than a taskmaster who insisted it must.

Besides, Cronin had another old coach to worry about.

Hep Cronin came up from Cincinnati to watch his son’s first NCAA Tournament game as UCLA’s coach. It turned out to be UCLA’s first tournament win since the second round in 2017, when Lonzo Ball led the Bruins past Cincinnati, coached by Cronin, in Sacramento.

Mick had not seen his dad since February of 2020. Hep was coming to the Pac-12 Tournament that March, but a virus intervened. They talk each day, with Mick gently ribbing him about the winter sunshine that L.A. generally has and Cincinnati generally doesn’t.

Now?

“Now I get to see him again,” Mick said.

After a series of late-game swan dives, and after a long Sunday afternoon of waiting to see if the NCAA would even beckon, UCLA suddenly has much to anticipate.

Its 86-80 overtime victory over Michigan State will be prized as a rare example of Bruin grit and gumption, even though both teams were 11th seeds, and in the second half everyone found out why Michigan State was. The Spartans (15-13) were smooth and commanding in seizing a 44-33 halftime lead, but UCLA (20-7) paralyzed them with the defense that it hasn’t displayed often, and it somehow grabbed the game’s joystick and made every play it had to in the final minutes. Michigan State missed 11 of its final 15 shots and lost a game it had led by five with 30 seconds left.

“I never thought we couldn’t come back and win,” Jaime Jaquez, Jr. said. “But we had to come out in the second half with different energy.”

Or maybe Jaquez needed to bequeath some of his to everyone else. It’s difficult to remember when a UCLA player has had such an influential NCAA Tournament. Jaquez played all 45 minutes, hit 11 of 20 shots and scored a career-high 27 points, and after halftime, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard got on board. In overtime Juzang went down with an ankle injury and had to be helped off the court, and who knows if he’ll be available Saturday against No. 6 seed Brigham Young? But by then he had scored 21 points, and the Bruins had underlined the fact that Michigan State’s defense, at least temporarily, has gone the way of the Oldsmobile.

“We thought (Malik) Hall and (Joey) Houser would guard Jaime,” Cronin said, “and we liked those matchups, so he knew I was going to be coming his way.”

Jaquez used his exemplary footwork and his keen anticipation, a sense that he displayed from Day One in a Bruin uniform in the fall of 2019. He can also shoot it conventionally, but he also has worked at the game so diligently that he knows how to invent the angles of attack. At one point he was zooming in for a layup and the ball escaped his hands, but he kept his legs moving and found himself in the left corner. The ball found him, too, and Jaquez swished a 3-pointer.

He also rebounded his own free-throw miss and converted the 3-point play that gave the Bruins the 77-77 tie it took into overtime. Over the final 25 minutes, Michigan State scored 36 points.

Jaquez had already committed to UCLA when Cronin took the job. He also had traveled with the Mexican national team, playing against men. “I think sometimes he’s almost better when we’re down,” Cronin said.

“I just try to give us what we need,” Jaquez said. “Tonight it was scoring, along with trying to get deflections. The kind of defense we played in the first half wasn’t going to get it done.”

The win also showed a maturity level in the program itself. True, UCLA spent the final two weeks losing close games. But it lost to USC on a fanciful shot at the buzzer, and it lost to Oregon because it suffered late turnovers against pressure, and it didn’t shoot free throws well against Oregon State. The Bruins had a four-game losing streak but they weren’t in the tank. They were actually the better team through most of those games and just couldn’t hold up down the stretch. There’s a difference, and Cronin kept saying that it was the nature of the game, not the nature of the players, that was causing the problem.

“They needed something like this,” Cronin said. He also said that he would find that Wooden statue before the Bruins left Indiana. They seem in no rush.

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Relief turns to hope as the UCLA Bruins are finally buzzed into the tournament

As the bracket announcement for the expanded Indiana State Basketball Fair was nearing the end, UCLA assistant coach Michael Lewis got the stink-eye from Mick Cronin, his boss.

“He’s our resident bracketologist,” Cronin said Sunday. “He assured me we were in. The fact that we got in was good for his job security. His credibility was slipping.”

No problem. The Bruins were the fifth Pac-12 team to gain entry to the NCAA field, which tells you about the fallowness of that field, and will play Michigan State in a First Four game sometime on Thursday, somewhere in Lewis’ home state.

The survivor of that battle of 11th seeds will meet Brigham Young in the next round. Both games are winnable for UCLA, just as USC’s game with the Drake-Wichita State winner is winnable, as is a probable matchup with Kansas after that.

Even UC Santa Barbara, the Big West champ with a 22-4 record, doesn’t appear disadvantaged by fifth-seeded Creighton in its first round. CSUN coach Mark Gottfried is among those who think the Gauchos are a live dog.

As Cronin mentioned, everyone is 0-0, even a Gonzaga club that is 26-0. The conference tournaments portend three weeks of NCAA chaos. Oregon State plowed through the Pac-12, and Georgetown, which entered the Big East tournament with a losing record, took advantage of Villanova’s injuries and then beat Connecticut and Creighton.

That could have endangered UCLA, but instead bounced Louisville, whose fans have totally shrugged off the fact that tournament selection committee chairman Mitch Barnhart is the athletic director at Kentucky. Right?

The Bruins got this bid because they won close games, a knack that escaped them at the very end. At one point they were 8-1 in games decided by five or fewer points, which does not count a triple-overtime win over Pepperdine. Only two of their losses in their 0-4 finish were that close, but they had control at Oregon and literally threw it away.

Michigan State conjures up images of muscled-up longshoremen who drop anvils on nearby heads. This MSU team was actually outscored by its opponents. It is true that the Spartans beat Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State in a 13-day span. It’s also true that Michigan State lost by 30 to Iowa and Rutgers, scoring 37 against the Scarlet Knights, and shot 41.2 percent in an opening-round Big 10 tournament loss to Maryland.

If anything, Michigan State’s familiarity with top-shelf Big Ten basketball will be its edge. There’s little question the Spartans, 9-11 in the Big 10, would have contended strongly for a Pac-12 title. But it doesn’t mean UCLA can’t win, particularly if Jules Bernard, Jaime Jaquez and Johnny Juzang can find a way to get hot simultaneously.

Meanwhile, what matchup does USC prefer? Drake won its first 19 games but then lost Roman Penn and Stephen Hemphill to injury, and it saw no one resembling Evan Mobley. Wichita State regrouped after Isaac Brown replaced coach Gregg Marshall, had no bad losses, and defeated Houston.

The Shockers have the ultimate 2020s player in Tyson Etienne, who shoots 39.9 percent from three-point land and 37.9 percent from two. He’s also DeAndre Jordan’s cousin.

UCSB has lost once since Dec. 27 and has JaQuori McLaughlin, the Big West Player of the Year. Creighton is 20-8 and well-respected, but is questionable on two fronts: a defensive field goal percentage of 48.6 and the Bluejays’ clunky 64.2 performance from the foul line.

Ultimately, those who win NCAA games will have to develop a sort of lab-rat obedience. The governing body is leaving few decisions to the coaches or schools.

“They’ve gone all-out,” Cronin said of the NCAA. “Here’s your hotel, here’s your floor, here’s your hallway and elevator. This is where you eat and practice. They’ll have expanded planes and buses to keep the distancing.”

This uncomfortable season might lead to useful procedures in the future, including more league games, and a centralized tournament. In fact, why not play the whole thing in L.A. someday? Certainly Staples Center, the new Clippers’ arena, Pauley Pavilion, Galen Center, Honda Center and Toyota Arena in Ontario could handle it.

There were those who thought the mere idea of a 2021 tournament was madness, and certainly COVID-19 was enormously disruptive. But, as Barnhart said, four of every five scheduled regular-season games were played. If the danger is controlled, the enthusiasm doesn’t have to be.

Besides, the Bruins got a chance to bump knuckles on a day when Duke, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indiana and Kentucky didn’t. When you still have games ahead, on the second Sunday of a pandemic March, you’re ahead of the game.

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