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UCLA Comes Up Short in Pac-12 Title Game, Loses to Arizona
The Bruins could not figure things out in the second half.
Well, that’s a frustrating way to head into the NCAA Tournament.
The UCLA Bruins and Arizona Wildcats put on an excellent basketball game, a back-and-forth affair where both teams showed that they were going to be a force in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the Bruins found themselves without the services of their two bigs for a stretch of the second half, and that proved costly, as Arizona was able to put together a run and retake a lead that they would ultimately never relinquish, as the Bruins fell by the final score of 84-76.
Let us be frank: this game turned at the 13:07 mark of the second half when Myles Johnson picked up his fourth foul. That foul compounded the problem for the Bruins, as Cody Riley already had four fouls as well. The Bruins were stuck trying to defend the size and length of Arizona with only Kenneth Nwuba, and it was just not enough as the Wildcats repeatedly attacked the Bruins on the inside. Meanwhile, UCLA struggled to hit shots, which allowed Arizona to erase what had been a 12 point lead for the Bruins at one point.
The loss of Johnson especially proved costly, as UCLA lacked length to help contest against Arizona. Strangely, Mick Cronin did not go to Jaylen Clark or Peyton Watson much in the second half, with the two lengthy wings playing only four and one minutes respectively. It was strange because Cronin had gone to them in the first half to help cover for early foul trouble to the bigs, and their length had done an excellent job of disrupting what Arizona wanted to do offensively. Cronin seemed content to ride his veterans in the second half, and it proved costly.
But that’s going to be the big rub going into the tournament. UCLA has the talent to stay with any team they play, but the Bruins are only going to go as far as Cronin’s rotations take them. Last year, Cronin pushed all the right buttons en route to the Final Four, but this year has led to more questions as Cronin has seemed reluctant to go to his younger, lengthier players for an extended time. UCLA lost this game because its defense was nonexistent for the second half, and Cronin refused to play the guys who could fix that problem.
If you are looking for good news from this game, you could easily start with Johnny Juzang, who had his best game in a month. Juzang had 16 points on 7-15 shooting from the field and finally looked comfortable with the pull-up jumpers that are his bread and butter. Juzang really does appear to be the kind of player who will rise to the occasion when the lights are brightest, and to see him have a positive performance is a good sign going forward.
Jaime Jaquez was fine. It wasn’t the best game from the junior, but he utilized his old man game to put up a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. That said, going 0-5 from three is not great, and his three turnovers led the team by a healthy margin. The same could be said for Jules Bernard, who led the team in scoring but was pretty inefficient from the field, including launching three-point attempts early in possessions instead of letting the offense flow more naturally. Tyger Campbell had 14 points but he too struggled to hit shots thanks to the length of the Wildcats.
The big thing now will be to put this performance behind them. Last season the Bruins were able to put a poor end to the regular season in the rearview en route to a huge postseason run. The Bruins have looked much better to end this season. Now to see how they do in March, where anything can happen.
Jules Bernard led the Bruins with 19 points. Jaime Jaquez led the team with 10 rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led them with four assists. Benn Mathurin led the Wildcats with 27 points.
Player of the Game: Johnny Juzang - Juzang was the most consistent Bruin in this game, hitting his jumpers and driving hard to the basket. It’s hard to fault him for his defense when he wasn’t the biggest offender for all of the back-cuts that killed the team. At the very least, Juzang looked much closer to the Johnny Buckets that took over March Madness last year.
Area of Concern: The Interior and Foul Trouble - The game really turned once both Myles Johnson and Cody Riley were forced to sit with four fouls apiece. Johnson has been the big defensive pivot for the Bruins down the stretch, but this was always going to be a hard matchup for him just due to the size of the Wildcats. But Riley was wildly ineffective in his time on the court, picking up quick fouls and only getting to 15 minutes thanks to Cronin going with him over the final stretch. The Bruins desperately need Riley to pick up his game for the tournament if only to provide meaningful minutes while Johnson is out, and if they have to rely on Kenneth Nwuba for significant minutes in the tournament again, something has gone seriously wrong.
The Pac-12 Has Two Elite Teams - If there is one true takeaway from tonight’s game, it’s that the conference has two teams that should legitimately challenge for the national championship. The Bruins are the more battle-tested of the two, while Arizona has a lot of talent and size that is a nightmare for most teams. It would not be a huge shock to see these two facing each other for the fourth time in New Orleans in April.
Selection Sunday is tomorrow, where we find out where the Bruins are heading off to.