UCLA’s Pac-12 title hopes compromised in turnover-fueled loss to Oregon
After four postponements, two flights to the Pacific Northwest and three months’ worth of frustration, UCLA finally got to play Oregon in a high-stakes matchup involving the two teams atop the Pac-12 Conference standings.
It wasn’t worth the wait.
Wilting in the final minutes for the second time in five days, the Bruins couldn’t withstand the Ducks’ heightened pressure or match their poise during a crushing 82-74 loss Wednesday night at Matthew Knight Arena.
It was reminiscent of UCLA’s defeat against Colorado last weekend, only worse. The Bruins committed 12 of their 14 turnovers in the second half and lost a nine-point lead over the final 11 minutes. Along the way, they fell out of first place in the conference standings.
“Both games we had in our hands and we let it slip, which is unacceptable,” UCLA guard Jules Bernard said after a strangely quiet ending on a night he scored a career-high 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
A trip to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament could do more bad than good for UCLA, which is already a lock for the NCAA tournament, according to projections.
Bernard didn’t score over the game’s final 13 minutes, his final touches symbolic of his team’s collapse. He had a shot blocked, turned the ball over and missed a layup.
For the Bruins (17-7 overall, 13-5 Pac-12) to win the conference’s regular-season title, they will need lots of help over the final days of the regular season, including a victory over USC on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. Oregon (18-5, 13-4) can clinch its second consecutive title with a victory over Oregon State on Sunday.
Managing to compose itself after one extended lull, UCLA pulled into a 68-68 tie with four minutes left when forward Cody Riley made a layup and a free throw after getting fouled on the play.
The balance of the game went entirely the Ducks’ way. A putback by Oregon’s LJ Figueroa commenced a 12-2 run that Will Richardson capped with a crossover move that freed him for a three-pointer, giving the Ducks an 80-70 advantage.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin lamented his team’s lack of toughness on both ends of the court in the second half as well as its inability to match the Ducks’ veteran leadership on a senior-laden team.
“If you’re going to beat a team like this on senior day,” Cronin said, “it’s going to take a way better defensive effort, a way better defensive effort.”
UCLA, which led by two at the half, appeared to be rolling toward an emphatic victory when Jaime Jaquez Jr. made a one-handed jumper in the lane to give his team a 60-51 lead. Then the Bruins went into a funk reminiscent of their sloppy stretch at the end of their loss to Colorado last weekend.
Bernard rushed a couple of jumpers, Johnny Juzang forced an entry pass that was stolen and Jaquez tried to get cute with a pass intended for Mac Etienne that flew out of bounds.
“Obviously the turnovers destroy you — they destroy you,” Cronin said. “They weren’t all against pressure. We can’t even feed the post; we throw it out of bounds, we catch it with one hand, and that’s all lack of toughness. At winning time against high-level teams, the tougher team’s going to win.”
Oregon capitalized on the mistakes with a 15-2 spurt spanning six minutes, the Bruins twice getting so flustered that they couldn’t even inbound the ball and were forced to call timeout. A Chris Duarte layup gave the Ducks a 66-62 lead on the way to his team-high 23 points.
Bernard broke his previous career high of 21 points when he swished a three-pointer to give UCLA a 56-47 lead with 13:28 left. After he snagged a rebound shortly thereafter, ESPN broadcaster and Bruin legend Bill Walton gushed, “What hasn’t he done tonight? Is he still eligible for player of the year?”
Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez Jr. talk about UCLA’s loss to Oregon on Wednesday.
That the game was played could have been considered the only victory the Bruins notched Wednesday. One player registered a positive COVID-19 antigen test Tuesday, sparking concerns about what that might mean for the game against the Ducks, before follow-up PCR testing showed that the result was a false positive.
Another confirmed positive coronavirus test would have been the latest in a series of mishaps preventing these teams from playing before this week. They had four scheduled games (including two makeup games) wiped out by various viral issues involving game officials and the Ducks.
Oregon won the only game that was played, and the only one that mattered.
“We just have to have pride,” Bernard said. “The last nine minutes, their whole team was riled up and we just got to have pride and play bigger than we did today. Play like men, like a team. Play with confidence, with heart.”
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