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The Sports Report: UCLA advances to Final Four, USC does not

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang shoots over Michigan guard Mike Smith during the first half.
Johnny Juzang shoots over Mike Smith during the first half.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Ben Bolch on UCLA’s men’s basketball team: From the moment his team commenced this pulsating run, becoming the underdog that always found a way, Mick Cronin insisted it wasn’t about winning a few games to put a lovely bow on the season or to show promise for what’s to come.

Achieving an upward trajectory, nudging his team back into national prominence and quieting the doubters were not among the reasons Cronin agreed to come to UCLA.

As the team’s 11 national championship banners reminded him daily, there was only one acceptable finish for a team with this kind of history on college basketball’s biggest stage, and that was winning it all.

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In what has felt like an improbable instant under their fiery coach, the Bruins are almost there.

In only his second season, missing two of his best players over the final months, Cronin has pushed every needed button, his team slaying every heavy favorite, coming within two victories of the school’s first national title since 1995.

UCLA held off top-seeded Michigan, 51-49, in the East Regional final on Tuesday night after surviving its most feared nemesis: an inbounds pass in the final second.

That play had haunted them for months after Stanford and USC both downed the Bruins on that play. But Michigan’s Franz Wagner will not live in the Bruins’ nightmares alongside Oscar da Silva and Tajh Eaddy after his three-pointer at the buzzer hit the side of the rim and fell to the court, setting off a wild celebration.

The Bruins (22-9) will face top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday in a national semifinal after the Bulldogs routed USC in the earlier game, thwarting what would have been the first meeting of the Bruins and Trojans in an NCAA tournament. It will be UCLA’s first appearance in a Final Four since the last of three consecutive trips under coach Ben Howland in 2008.

Two days after UCLA had six players in double figures, the Bruins had only five players score against the Wolverines (23-5). It was enough. Johnny Juzang scored 18 of his 28 points in the first half, playing much of the second half with a bothersome ankle he hurt while grabbing a rebound.

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Ryan Kartje on USC men’s basketball: The end arrived swiftly, at least. It came in a flurry of careless turnovers in the West Region final, handed over on a platter to top-seeded Gonzaga. It came in transition, where the silky smooth Bulldogs bludgeoned a Trojans defense which had supposedly prepared for tempo. It came in the paint and on the perimeter and along the offensive glass, where USC was outmuscled, outclassed, and overwhelmed in an 85-66 loss to a national title favorite that won 30 games in a row this season for a reason.

“It’s tough to come back on this team,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We were missing some of the shots we normally make, and they were making everything.”

Sometimes, it’s just as simple as that. Gonzaga left no room for respite, no opportunity to regroup, no chance for USC to catch its breath. Before the Trojans even could find their footing, it was too late. A magical March run that saw them soar to the first Elite Eight for the first time in two decades was over, long before the buzzer even sounded.

It wouldn’t minimize their memorable march to this moment. Before the season, the conference media had picked USC to finish sixth in the Pac-12, and the Trojans never forgot the slight. They roared to within a few percentage points of a Pac-12 title, then ran roughshod over their first three tournament opponents, beating Drake, Kansas, and Oregon by an average of more than 21 points each.

“This season was very important for our program,” Enfield said. “To make the Elite Eight for the second time in 67 years is a credit to our players and what they accomplished this season.”

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Dylan Hernández: USC had a nice NCAA tournament run, but can Andy Enfield sustain it?

Check out the men’s bracket here

March Madness: How to watch, stream every 2021 NCAA tournament game

CLIPPERS

Andrew Greif on the Clippers: While Orlando was producing as many airballs as three-pointers (three), and the Clippers’ lead reached 16, Steve Ballmer watched Tuesday’s first half from a seat five rows up from Staples Center’s midcourt, appearing as relaxed as the team’s animated owner can be.

By the start of the fourth quarter, his location had changed to a baseline seat. He watched, hunched over, as the relative serenity of the first half disappeared into an outcome few could have predicted.

Playing for the fifth time in seven days and missing five players, including four starters, the Clippers’ hold slowly eroded over the course of a second half to forget en route to a 103-96 loss that snapped their six-game winning streak.

What had appeared so easy to begin the first quarter, as the Clippers (32-17) scored the first 10 points, became brutally difficult by the end as the effects of fatigue showed with intercepted passes, clanked three-pointers and missed boxouts. Los Angeles scored just 45 points after halftime and shot 32% on three-pointers, their worst since March 17.

Even still, coach Tyronn Lue didn’t accept attrition as the deciding factor. After allowing just 37 points at halftime, the team’s fewest in more than a calendar year, the Clippers allowed Orlando to score 33 points in each of the final two quarters. A Magic (16-31) team, it should be noted, that also played without five players less than a week removed from tearing the roster down to the studs at the NBA’s trade deadline.

“First half, I thought we should have been up at least 25, 26,” Lue said. What followed, he said, were bad decisions and “stupid shots.”

NFL

Sam Farmer on the NFL: Commissioner Roger Goodell says he’s expecting full stadiums for NFL teams from coast to coast this season, and while that’s optimistic and aspirational, this much we know:

The league will have a schedule stuffed to capacity.

NFL owners voted Tuesday to approve a 17-game regular season, beginning this fall, marking the first time since 1978 the league has altered its scheduling structure. In adding a week to the regular season, the owners also trimmed the preseason from four games to three, a welcome change for fans unhappy about paying full price for exhibitions.

After a season of cardboard fans and fake noise, and dramatically diminished stadium capacities in those places where local authorities allowed spectators, Goodell has much higher hopes for this season.

“We had 1.2 million fans safely attend games last year, and all of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,” Goodell said. “Football is simply not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”

Naturally, there are health and safety concerns to adding a week of games. Goodell pointed out the league has been working for years to make the game safer.

“Over the last decade, we’ve collaborated with our players and [NFL Players Assn.] medical experts, used injury data and advanced analytics to make changes to the game both on and off the field that have improved the health and safety of our players, and changed the game for the better,” he said.

The format for the extra game will feature teams from opposing conferences that finished in the same place within their division the previous season. AFC teams will play host to all the extra games this season, and the NFC will host next year. Otherwise, some teams in the same conference would have eight home games, while others would have nine.

The Rams play at Baltimore in their extra game, and the Chargers play host to Minnesota.

LAKERS

Broderick Turner on the Lakers: In seven short and sweet words, Lakers coach Frank Vogel provided the plan for newly acquired center Andre Drummond for Wednesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center.

“Yeah, he’s going to start tomorrow night,” Vogel said on a videoconference after practice Tuesday.

Drummond will make his Lakers debut starting in place of Marc Gasol, and it will be the first time Drummond has played in a game since Feb. 12, when he had eight points, five rebounds, two assists and one steal in 17 minutes with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Although the 6-foot-10 Drummond said he has been working out and is in “great” shape, he did just sign with the Lakers on Sunday after clearing waivers following a buyout from Cleveland.

USC FOOTBALL

Ryan Kartje on the Trojans: When Kedon Slovis took the field last March for his lone practice of spring, his injured elbow wasn’t entirely back to normal. The USC quarterback remained on a pitch count, working his way back to the form that made him a freshman sensation, when the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. The next day, spring was canceled, and Slovis was sent home to Arizona.

His elbow would have plenty of time to heal over the next three months. But the confidence he’d built in his arm over a stellar debut season never quite returned. A training camp hampered by pandemic protocols and a shortened sophomore campaign didn’t help. When the season began, it was clear Slovis wasn’t as sharp. Some passes wobbled out of his hand. Others sailed away from intended receivers.

Those closest to the quarterback assured everyone that nothing was wrong. But as he looked back on his sophomore season at the start of USC’s spring practice on Tuesday, Slovis admitted that something was indeed missing.

“My whole life, I’ve been confident with my accuracy and me throwing a football,” Slovis said. “Last season, I’d say for the first time was kind of a point where I wasn’t there entirely.”

It’s from that realization that Slovis opens spring focused on finding his stride ahead of a third collegiate season that could be his last before the NFL comes calling.

RAMS

Gary Klein on the Rams: The Rams suffered another loss in free agency as center Austin Blythe agreed to terms Tuesday on a one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, according to NFL.com.

Brian Allen, a 2018 draft pick, could replace Blythe, but Allen did not play last season while recovering from a 2019 knee injury. So, uncertainty surrounds a key position on the offensive line for a team that features new quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Allen, 25, was a rotational player as a rookie in 2018. He started nine games at center in 2019 before he was injured, and Blythe moved from guard to center. Under former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, linemen trained at several positions. Coleman Shelton, who opted out last season, played center in college at Washington.

NCAA MEN’S TOURNAMENT RESULTS, SCHEDULE

All times Pacific
Tuesday’s results
Elite Eight

West Regional
No. 1 Gonzaga 85, No. 6 USC 66

East Regional
No. 11 UCLA 51, No. 1 Michigan 49

Saturday’s schedule
Final Four

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 2 Houston, 2 p.m., CBS
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA, 5:30 p.m., CBS

Monday’s schedule
Championship
6 p.m., CBS

NCAA WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE, RESULTS

All times Pacific
Tuesday’s results
Elite Eight

Hemisfair Regional
No. 1 South Carolina 62, No. 6 Texas 34

Alamo Regional
No. 1 Stanford 78, No. 2 Louisville 63

Friday’s schedule
Final Four

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Stanford, 3 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Arizona, 6:30 p.m., ESPN

Sunday’s schedule
Championship
3 p.m., ESPN

Check out the women’s bracket here

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1909 — Baseball’s National Commission rules that players who jump contracts will be suspended for five years. Players joining outlaw organizations will be suspended for three years as punishment for going outside organized baseball.

1923 — The Ottawa Senators of the NHL completes a two-game sweep of the WCHL’s Edmonton Eskimos with a 1-0 victory to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years. Harry “Punch” Broadbent scores the goal.

1968 — The American League’s new franchise in Seattle chooses Pilots as its nickname.

1973 — The Philadelphia Flyers tie an NHL record for most goals in one period, scoring eight goals in the second period of a 10-2 win over the New York Islanders.

1973 — Ken Norton scores a stunning upset by winning a 12-round split decision over Muhammad Ali to win the NABF heavyweight title. Norton, a 5-1 underdog, breaks Ali’s jaw in the first round.

1975 — UCLA beats Kentucky 92-85 for its 10th NCAA basketball title under head coach John Wooden. Wooden finishes with a 620-147 career record after announcing his retirement two days earlier.

1985 — Old Dominion beats Georgia 70-65 for the women’s NCAA basketball championship.

1986 — Freshman center Pervis Ellison hits two free throws with 27 seconds left to seal Louisville’s 72-69 victory over Duke in the NCAA basketball championship.

1990 — Quebec’s Joe Sakic, 20, becomes the youngest player in NHL history to score 100 points in a season and the first to do so with a last-place team.

1991 — Tennessee edges Virginia 70-67 in overtime for its third NCAA women’s basketball title.

1991 — Amy Alcott wins the Dinah Shore golf tournament with a record eight-shot victory over Dottie Mochrie.

1995 — Major league baseball players end their strike when Federal judge Sonia Sotomayor of U.S. District Court in Manhattan rules against the owners in the labor dispute.

1997 — Martina Hingis becomes the youngest No. 1 player in tennis history. The 16-year-old Swiss sensation, who claimed her fifth title of 1997 at the Lipton Championships on March 29, supplants Steffi Graf in the WTA Tour rankings.

2012 — Ray Whitney passes 1,000 career points with a goal and assist in Phoenix’s 4-0 victory over Anaheim.

2013 — In one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA women’s tournament, sixth-seeded Louisville stuns defending national champion Baylor in the regional semifinals, 82-81. It’s the end of a remarkable college career for Baylor’s Brittney Griner, a record-setting 6-foot-8 post player who ended up as the second-highest scoring player in NCAA history.

2013 — Pete Weber ties Earl Anthony by winning his 10th major Professional Bowlers Association title with a 224-179 win over Australian Jason Belmonte in the Tournament of Champions.

2013 — Louisville overcomes Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury and advances to the Final Four with a 85-63 win over Duke. Ware breaks his leg in the first half of the Midwest Regional final when he lands awkwardly after trying to contest a 3-point shot.

2017 — Evgenia Medvedeva retains her world figure skating title, breaking her own world record total score with 233.41 points. The 17-year-old Russian becomes the first woman to win back-to-back titles since 2001.

2017 — UConn’s record 111-game winning streak comes to a startling end when Mississippi State pulls off perhaps the biggest upset in women’s basketball history, shocking the Huskies 66-64 on Morgan William’s overtime buzzer beater in the national semifinals.

And finally

Vin Scully on Maury Wills breaking Ty Cobb’s record. Watch it here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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