Column: A UCLA team with Final Four hopes is battered beyond recognition

It ended as it has ended every spring for the last 22 years.

College basketball’s greatest dynasty pushed around, shoved down, run over, knocked out.

UCLA basketball put to sleep early, 11 national titles dusted over quickly, a world of promise ended suddenly in a faraway gym amid boos and jeers.

This is getting old. This is really tired. And on Friday night at FedExForum, this was truly awful, a UCLA team with Final Four hopes battered beyond recognition and sent to a place where its heart will be dismantled.


Gone, the Bruins’ national title hopes with an 86-75 loss to Kentucky in the South Region semifinals.

Gone, the Bruins’ attempt to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in nine years, and win their first national title since 1995.

Gone, too, will be the soul of a team that had grown so strong together in a 31-win season before being strangely outfought by the tougher Wildcats.

When it ended, Coach Steve Alford waited at the end of the court to pat the backs of each of his dazed players as they staggered into the tunnel, many of them saying goodbye not only to the season, but also to UCLA.

Lonzo Ball, gone. TJ Leaf, gone. Bryce Alford, gone. Isaac Hamilton, gone.

As the last Bruin left the court, a fan shouted, “Coach Alford, don’t leave us!”

It turns out, he’s not gone. Alford, who was the subject of recent speculation regarding the vacancy at his alma mater of Indiana, told The Times late Friday that he is staying a Bruin. Even though there were even reports that he had already been offered a contract, with some saying it was a done deal, Alford has decided to stick with a program that he has made exciting and fun again.

“I am not going to Indiana; I love it here at UCLA,” Alford told The Times. “I am happy here. We have a great class coming in and a brand-new practice facility almost ready to open. I am 100% committed to UCLA. I am staying a Bruin.”

Some fans won’t be pleased, but the one bright part of this fractured Bruins future is its coach. Alford has not only taken the team to three Sweet 16s in his four years, but also he is bringing in a top-three recruiting class next year featuring two McDonald’s All-Americans in Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes. The Bruins will be so loaded, the second Ball brother, LiAngelo, will be fighting for playing time.

“This is a pretty special place,” Alford said.

It will be a different-looking place next season, as was evident with each player that walked past Alford to leave the court.

Ball was shaking his head and staring at the sky. The freshman was their best player, yet on this night he was their biggest disappointment, shoved around by stronger Kentucky guards, rattled into as many turnovers as baskets with four each, only four second-half points.

He’s gone to the NBA. He’s so gone, in fact, that he even announced it in the UCLA locker room while some of his teammates were sobbing around him. Even in this awkward age of the one-and-dones, it was a strikingly unfeeling moment, as poorly timed as his father LaVar’s recent public braggadocio.

“This is my final game at UCLA, I appreciate all the fans,” said Ball as if reading from a script.

When asked whether it was disappointing to end his brief career like this, he quickly answered, “This is not a disappointment. This was a good year. Tonight I didn’t make enough plays for my team, and that’s on me.”

Then there was Leaf, their other top freshman who is also surely gone to the NBA. Like Ball, he was bullied by the Wildcats, scoring just four points in the second half, taking only three shots. But unlike Ball, he said he was too upset over the game to even discuss his future.

“I have no clue what I’m doing, I have not made a decision yet,” he said, fighting back tears. “I’m still thinking about tonight.”

Also gone are UCLA guards Alford and Hamilton, both of whom had used up their eligibility, and both of whom struggled to defend a Kentucky team that made nearly half of its shots and made nearly half of its three-pointers in the second half.

“It kind of sinks in pretty much, I think, knowing that you just lost a game in the NCAA tournament,” said Bryce Alford, his eyes red.

Added a despondent Hamilton: “Real emotion.”

The Bruins needed more of that emotion to hold off a team that they had beaten by five points back in December. They lacked the intensity that Kentucky showed on loose balls, offensive rebounds and forced turnovers. With the pro-Kentucky crowd roaring, the Wildcats turned a three-point halftime lead into a comfortable late margin with 39 points from De’Aaron Fox and 21 points from Malik Monk, two freshmen who outplayed Ball.

The season began back in November with UCLA scoring 100 points against Pacific and the basketball world talking about the amazing flying Bruins.

The season ended Friday with Ball scoring on an open dunk when Kentucky just stopped playing defense, the thousands of Kentucky fans booing and laughing.

The season ended ugly. The season ended early. A dream stopped dead in the third week of March. Again.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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