One Last Collapse, UCLA Blows Game to Southern Cal 64-63
The Bruins played an excellent game again, and then found a way to lose.
I don’t really have many words right now. It was all so predictable.
Once again, a team with more talent than UCLA currently possesses made plays down the stretch, and once again UCLA was left holding the bag, watching an opponent celebrate a victory. That it was against Southern Cal of all teams makes it sting a bit more, but this is just UCLA basketball at the end of the 2021 season.
The UCLA Bruins had an 11 point lead at the half. It was eight with 5:06 to play. It was a three-point lead with under a minute to play. None of it matters, because UCLA did not score a single point over the final two minutes of game time, and two points total in the final five minutes, opening the door for Southern Cal’s Tahj Eaddy to hit a fadeaway three in the corner to give Southern Cal its first lead of the game, and thus allow UCLA to drop their third-straight game in disappointing fashion 64-63.
UCLA already looked to be at a disadvantage going into this game with the announcement that leading scorer Johnny Juzang would not be at 100% due to an ankle injury suffered in practice Friday (seriously, what is with this team and getting ankle injuries right before the Southern Cal game) and ultimately would not see the court despite being announced as available. That did not seem to be an issue for most of the game, as the Bruins played inspired basketball for the first half. David Singleton came alive for nine first-half points, while the Bruin defense held Southern Cal to 41.7% shooting and 25 points in the first half. It was about as perfect of a first half as you could ask for given the circumstances.
And then the wheels slowly fell off. Southern Cal’s defense, which is very good and anchored by future top draft pick Evan Mobley, began putting the clamps on the Bruin offense, with the Bruins struggling for shots fairly often. The Southern Cal offense also started finding success, including finally hitting some three-pointers after missing all of their attempts in the first half. The one bright spot was free-throw shooting, as the Trojans lived up to their reputation of being a bad foul shooting team by going 10-20 from the free-throw line, including missing a bevy of attempts late.
But UCLA was not going to be denied their third collapse in three games. As mentioned, Jules Bernard had hit a runner with 5:06 remaining to push the UCLA lead to eight, and Southern Cal called a timeout. From that point on, the game tilted towards the Trojans, as they were able to slowly chip away at that lead while UCLA only managed to score two points that entire stretch on a Cody Riley jumper. Jaime Jaquez and Bernard both missed the front-ends of 1-and-1 attempts that could have helped push the UCLA lead out in the final minute, opening the door for the last-second shot. If UCLA executes even a small percentage better, the final looks very different.
There is going to be some discussion of the officiating in the final seconds of this game, but honestly, I don’t think there was anything particularly egregious. The drive by Tahj Eaddy was a no-call that could have gone either way (travel or a foul on Campbell) and the 5-second inbound count was questionable but not out of line with how that is normally called. And again, those plays only happen because UCLA failed to execute down the stretch, so had UCLA played better in the late game, it would not have mattered.
At the end of the day, UCLA has now lost three straight games against the top end of the conference. This was a chance for UCLA to prove they belonged at the top, and at the end of the day, they failed the test. Even putting aside the perspective of who is missing for this team compared to what was expected at the beginning, this is a disappointing end to the regular season, and should lead to some questions being asked by the coaching staff about the plan going forward.
Jaime Jaquez led the Bruins with 12 points. Jules Bernard led the team with seven rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led the team with four assists. Evan Mobley led the Trojans with 13 points.
Player of the Game: David Singleton - UCLA needed someone to step up with Johnny Juzang out, and Singleton was more than willing to be that guy. Singleton had 11 points on 4-7 shooting, and was a strong presence for a Bruin team that desperately needed it at times. The junior has not had a great season in general, but he stepped up when his team needed it.
Area of Concern: Talent - This is the third game in a row where the team with more talent made the plays down the stretch to doom the Bruins. Obviously this is not a problem that gets solved during the Pac-12 Tournament, and going off of recruiting this looks like it can be fixed, but this has been a helpful reminder that Steve Alford did a terrible job with this roster near the end of his tenure.
Not Playing to Win the Game - One of the things that stood out to me late was how much UCLA tried to take the air out of the ball. Long possessions to kill time are fine in theory, but they still have to end in a good shot. Instead, UCLA forced things late in the shot clock and came up empty repeatedly. We talk in football about using a prevent offense to nurse a lead, but UCLA instituted one in basketball, and it cost them. I don’t know why this continually happens (it has also occurred in other conference games where UCLA eventually won) but this has been a bad trend that needs to be left behind after this season.
UCLA will, once again, need to regroup for the Pac-12 Tournament. They will get a 1st round bye.