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No. 3 UCLA struggles on defense in ‘embarrassing’ overtime loss to Oregon

Oregon's Franck Kepnang reaches for the ball after colliding with UCLA guard Jules Bernard.
Oregon’s Franck Kepnang, center, reaches for the ball after colliding with UCLA guard Jules Bernard during the second half of the Bruins’ 84-81 loss at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

UCLA and Oregon have waged some epic battles in recent years, the memory bank filled with a Dillon Brooks last-second shot, some unprintable words from Lonzo Ball after burying a 30-footer and Prince Ali yelling, “This is highway robbery, baby!” in a hallway after the Bruins had come back from nine points down with 51 seconds left.

What happened between the teams Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion wasn’t destined to go into any scrapbook. More like the scrap heap, as far as the Bruins were concerned.

Playing in front of only a smattering of fans in the wake of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, third-ranked UCLA turned in a sloppy, listless performance worthy of the nearly empty arena. Even some late defensive heroics from Jaylen Clark, who briefly jolted the Bruins back to life with two steals to force overtime, couldn’t save UCLA during an 84-81 setback that was its first defeat since late November.

Like a layer in his namesake Fat Sal’s sandwich, UCLA’s Tyger Campbell has added one ingredient that was missing from his repertoire: a trustworthy three-pointer.

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“It’s an abomination, it’s embarrassing,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of his team’s defensive effort on a night the Ducks to shoot 51.7% from the field in the second half and 62.5% in overtime. “I’ll fix it, though. ... We weren’t prepared, it’s my fault, my job.”

For all its flaws, UCLA (10-2, 2-1 Pac-12) had a chance to tie the score on the final possession. But Johnny Juzang missed a three-pointer with four seconds left.

Teammate Jules Bernard grabbed the rebound, trying desperately to get beyond the arc for another try. But Bernard’s shot was blocked at the buzzer, touching off a wild celebration among the Ducks (10-6, 3-2).

Cronin intimated that he could see his team’s first loss since a 20-point thrashing against Gonzaga on Nov. 23 coming because the Bruins were only one day removed from what he described as the worst practice of the season in terms of focus.

“What happens in this game, either you’re humble and hungry like they were, trying to pull off the so-called upset,” Cronin said, “or you’re arrogant without cause because we’ve won nothing.”

Juzang finished with 23 points for UCLA, which couldn’t muster another comeback after forcing overtime. After having trailed by as many as nine points early in the second half and briefly retaking the lead, the Bruins found themselves down 71-67 with 1:12 left after Cody Riley made a floater.

Clark came up with a steal when the Bruins applied full-court pressure and point guard Tyger Campbell was fouled, making two free throws to make it 71-69 with 20 seconds to go. Oregon inbounded the ball before Clark stole the next pass and converted a layup to tie the score with 11 seconds left and force the extra period.

Guard Jacob Young scored 23 points for Oregon (10-6, 3-2), which made five of eight shots in overtime to help coach Dana Altman log the 700th victory of his career.

Even with his team holding a 35-30 lead at halftime, Cronin kept his players in the locker room for almost the entire 15-minute break so that he could show them footage of how to pass to the open man.

The Bruins then came out and sleepwalked their way through the first 3½ minutes of the second half, failing to provide any resistance as Oregon made four three-pointers as part of a 14-2 push. It only got worse, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. having a shot blocked and Juzang fouling Oregon’s Rivaldo Soares on a three-point attempt.

Oregon center Franck Kepnang shoots against UCLA guard Peyton Watson.
Oregon center Franck Kepnang (22) shoots over UCLA guard Peyton Watson during the first half Thursday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“The main thing is we just need to get stops,” Juzang said. “They have talented guys, but we got to come up with stops down the stretch and we just didn’t do that. We’ve got to tighten up. Close games like that, against good teams, you can’t have any mistakes, and we had a lot.”

Cronin ticked off a partial list, including Juzang failing to grab a rebound after a Ducks player had inexplicably taken a half-court heave with several seconds left in the first half, leading to an Oregon dunk, and the 6-foot-10, 255-pound Myles Johnson getting a rebound taken away by Will Richardson for a layup.

“Toughness wins, guys,” Cronin said. “There’s a reason certain teams always win, they find a way, they compete. You start thinking you’re going to win because people tell you you’ve got this guy or you guys are really good, it’s got nothing to do with it. You’ve got to physically compete.”

While USC has come out of its COVID-19 hiatus with its first top-five win since 2014, UCLA is struggling to get back up to speed after a four-week break.

A crowd limited to family members of players left the Bruins to create their own energy, those on the bench chanting “Defense!” in the game’s early going. In the end, there was only silence.

“Didn’t help,” Cronin said of not having fans, “but I don’t believe in excuses. Play on the playground, man, you know? It is what it is.”

What it was Thursday was a sad chapter that left the Bruins ready to turn the page.

“If you don’t play hard, the game treats you the way it should, usually,” Cronin said. “Even if we had won, I’d have felt the same way.”


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