No. 2 UCLA is no match for No. 1 Gonzaga in rematch of Final Four classic
This time it wasn’t the crazy make, it was all the misses.
Jump hooks, baseline jumpers, three-pointers, point-blank layups — nothing was falling for UCLA early in a rematch with Gonzaga from the Final Four that quickly turned into a massive mismatch between the nation’s No. 1 and 2 teams.
The top-ranked Bulldogs disrupted defensively with their size and the second-ranked Bruins compounded their woes by playing lazy defense. At one point in the first half inside T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday night, UCLA had made three of 19 shots (15.8%). The Bruins trailed by as many as 23 points.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who had foreshadowed this sort of thing the previous day by saying his team wasn’t ready for this early season showdown, tried to reverse his team’s fortunes. He changed his lineups. He called three timeouts in the first 11½ minutes.
Seven months after a classic national semifinal that ended with Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs pumping his arms atop a courtside table after banking in a 40-footer at the overtime buzzer, there was no late drama during the Bulldogs’ runaway 83-63 victory.
As UCLA and Gonzaga prepare for a rematch, eight prominent Bruins players share their thoughts on the Final Four game and what they expect on Tuesday.
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme was celebrating after the halftime buzzer, raising his arms in triumph on the way off the court with his team holding a 45-25 advantage. UCLA was shooting 26.8% to that point and 11.1% from beyond the arc.
“We took too many shots without making them defend us,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to make them play defense. You can’t beat them if you don’t make them play defense.”
It never got much better, even some spirited play from Jaime Jaquez Jr. (19 points) unable to save the Bruins (5-1) from their early doldrums as they never drew closer than 16 points in the second half. UCLA finished the game shooting 34.8% and 16.7% from long range while allowing Gonzaga (6-0) to shoot 56%.
Cronin was most displeased with his team’s defensive shortcomings, noting the Bulldogs outscored his team 14-0 in fastbreak points in the first half.
“We didn’t offer much in the way of resistance,” Cronin said.
What was Cronin’s halftime message down by 20?
“Stop giving up layups,” Cronin said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Asked about several of his players possibly being sick, Cronin said, “Sniffles. That would add to our colossal softness right now.”
The big question entering the game was how UCLA would counter Gonzaga’s front line of Timme and 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren while missing sidelined forward Cody Riley. The Bruins started the game with center Myles Johnson on Timme and Jaquez on Holmgren, the latter matchup going in UCLA’s favor early when Jaquez stripped the ball from his counterpart for a steal.
But Holmgren repeatedly hurt the Bruins on both ends of the court. He sank a three-pointer and was even more effective defensively, using his long arms to contest a Jaquez drive that missed and stepping over to block a shot by Kenneth Nwuba. Holmgren’s most impressive sequence came early in the second half, when he blocked a Johnson shot before using a behind-the-back dribble to blow past him for a two-handed dunk.
Holmgren finished with 15 points, six rebounds and four blocks as one of four Gonzaga players to reach double figures in scoring.
Dick Vitale, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, will make his courtside return Tuesday as part of ESPN’s broadcast for the UCLA vs. Gonzaga game.
“We’re not the No. 2-ranked team in the country without Cody Riley,” Cronin said of a player expected back from a knee injury in two weeks. “Anybody that thought that wouldn’t be a big factor doesn’t watch us play a lot.”
The Bulldogs were also superior on the wing, Andrew Nembhard making nine of 13 shots on the way to 24 points, including a three-pointer after using a crossover dribble to make Johnny Juzang stumble backward.
Cronin did not bring any players to the postgame interviews but said he was not sending a message.
“The symbolism is, I’m the coach, we got beat and it’s my job to answer for it,” Cronin said. “Right now they need to be talking to each other and making a decision on what they’re going to do.”
Did Cronin sense that was going on after the game?
“No,” he said.
Cronin said his team’s early scoring binges this season, including an 86-77 overtime triumph over then-No. 4 Villanova, had masked its defensive deficiencies. Those issues finally humbled the Bruins on a national stage. Cronin suggested the lack of defense could lead to a precipitous fall if it’s not corrected.
“If you only win when the ball goes in, you are going to be a .500 team,” Cronin said. “You better fill out your NIT papers.”
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