There was no magic this time against Gonzaga. In the Sweet 16, UCLA lost 74-62 to the Zags, ending the Bruins' surprise run in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a strange game, beginning with a first half that saw the explosive Zags held to 13 points through nearly 10 minutes of play. Gonzaga was ice cold from the field in the first half, in part thanks to UCLA's solid early defense and in part thanks to what looked like cavernous shooting conditions in Houston. UCLA was unable to take advantage though, going scoreless from 14:28 in the first half to 8:11. That period, in which Gonzaga scored just three points, needed to be the point at which the Bruins built a substantial lead, but instead they just hung with the Zags. Then, when the inevitable Gonzaga onslaught came toward the end of the first half and early in the second half, the Bruins just didn't have an answer.
There were a few culprits for UCLA's inability to score. In the first half, Isaac Hamilton was way too quick on the trigger with his jumper, taking a few shots out of the flow of the offense that just seemed to kill UCLA momentum. Coach Alford switched Hamilton on the ball to a far greater extent in this game than in probably any other game this year, and it was a poor time for Hamilton to respond with those kinds of shots. His defense was spotty. As has been the case this year, he'll fall into ball-watching and forget about his man often enough that it's a real concern. His spurt to start the second half was nice, though, as he helped cut the Gonzaga lead to 1 at 35-34 with a couple of mid-range runners. Otherwise, though, it wasn't his best game, and it's a shame, since he did show some growing confidence as the season wore on after a really poor opening couple of months.
The game did show how desperately this team needs a point guard. With Hamilton primarily handling point guard duties today, the Bruins went through long periods of offensive ineptitude, unable to even effectively initiate the offense at points even though Gonzaga's defense wasn't exactly stifling. Bryce Alford, when he was on the ball, had a few nice moments, including an excellent assist to Thomas Welsh near the basket when Alford was doubled off of a ball screen. But Gonzaga did a nice enough job of shadowing him off of screens that Alford was more or less kept from impacting the game offensively, scoring just two points in non-junk time.
Tony Parker played a very poor game, despite his final statistics. Early on, UCLA seemed to focus on getting him the ball in good position, but there was little he could do against Karnowski, who held his ground against Parker's power moves. Then, when Parker missed his first shot badly, he seemed to go into a funk defensively that required Thomas Welsh to come in far earlier than he typically does. Parker played poorly again when he came back in later in the half, and it was noticeable when he came in how poorly UCLA began to defend the interior. After a brief spurt of solid play to being the second half, he reverted back to playing softly on defense in the second half, and the combination of Karnowski and Sabonis completely abused him.
Welsh played with far more poise, though physically he isn't yet at the point where he can consistently bang with guys like Karnowski and Sabonis. Still, he held his ground better than Parker and was far better moving his feet and maintaining awareness on defense. If Parker doesn't become a much more focused player by the start of next season, we wouldn't be shocked to see Welsh overtake him.
The game was lost on the interior, to a large extent. In the second half, after Bryce Alford took and missed a quick three down 37-34, Gonzaga proceeded to work the ball inside on virtually every possession and scored at will, jumping out to a 43-34 lead that was basically insurmountable for the Bruins. If you had some flashbacks of Florida's two-man game of Al Horford and Joakim Noah on a couple of those passes from Karnowski to Sabonis, you'd be forgiven. UCLA, as a group, just didn't rotate well or maintain awareness on the interior, especially in the second half. Then, in terms of rebounding, Parker and Kevon Looney especially just didn't play with enough fire, allowing Gonzaga's bigs to just take rebounds away from him. Gonzaga outrebounded UCLA by 11, with a stunning 18 offensive rebounds.
You have to give some credit to Norman Powell, not only for his contributions to UCLA over the last four years, but for his play in the first half. He was about the only reason that the Bruins were within striking distance at the end of the first half. Tactically, UCLA did a nice job of getting him the ball at the top of the key in high screen opportunities which allowed him to turn the corner with a head of steam against a mismatched big for easy layup chances. In the second half, he was defended better, and settled more for mid-range jumpers, which really aren't his forte. His efficiency on offense declined this year from last year, as we worried about a little in the season preview, because he had to create a little bit more off the dribble than he ideally would have to. He's a player who really needs to get the ball in certain spots to be very efficient offensively, and he just didn't consistently get that this year.
Kevon Looney never seemed to find a comfort level with the mask he was forced to wear after injuring his face. Despite that, he played very good defense on Kyle Wiltjer throughout the game, forcing him into a variety of difficult shots from mid-range. Offensively, though, Looney was just clearly not comfortable, looking much more hesitant on his one opportunity to lead the break and then struggling mightily with his shot, to the point where he passed up a fairly open three that he looked very confident taking just a few weeks ago. He was an obvious matchup problem for Wiltjer, but he just couldn't take advantage of it, not looking aggressive in the few opportunities he got on the wing. While it probably wouldn't have been a completely different outcome if Looney had been fully healthy, having him as a legitimate offensive threat perhaps could have made the game closer.
From a macro sense, you could argue any number of factors were the main thing limiting UCLA's potential this year, but we'd like to give a shoutout to UCLA's bench play. Against Gonzaga, Noah Allen was forced to play about five minutes in the first half when Coach Alford took out Bryce after his second foul. Allen really struggled during that time, and the scouting report is clearly out on him, with Gonzaga mostly sagging off of him on defense. Going through that five-minute stretch, where Gonzaga was still struggling to score, and not being able to take advantage on the offensive end was one of the worst signs from the first half.
So, UCLA's season ends, probably a little later than many expected. After earning a surprise bid, the Bruins won in a shocking finish over SMU and then beat up on a UAB team that they beat up on earlier in the year. Gonzaga, though, was able to have the same sort of success against UCLA that they had against the Bruins in December.
Looking ahead, the big question to answer is this: will this Sweet 16 run be enough to build some momentum for spring recruiting? It's no secret that much hinges on the success of spring recruiting, whether UCLA can somehow pull Jaylen Brown or Stephen Zimmerman out of whatever hat Looney sprang out of. Though the regular season was uninspiring, perhaps this run has given UCLA something to sell to some of the bigger fish remaining. In any case, with UCLA's two most talented players (Looney and Powell) leaving after this year, the Bruins will have to add a good deal of talent in the spring to hope to exceed this year's results.
No Magic This Time
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