LAS VEGAS — From on top of the college basketball world to deflated, momentarily back on top only to be heartbroken once more.
There couldn’t have been a bigger swing of emotions than UCLA experienced Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena against a most aggravating antagonist.
The Bruins lost a 13-point lead to Gonzaga early in the second half of their NCAA tournament West Regional semifinal, falling behind by 10. They stormed back, surging ahead by one point on Amari Bailey’s fearless three-pointer with 12.4 seconds left.
Only to be undone by another dagger shot through the heart.
Two years after Jalen Suggs, there was Julian Strawther.
Trailing his teammates, Strawther took a flip pass from Hunter Sallis and buried a 35-footer with six seconds left to lift third-seeded Gonzaga to a breathless 79-76 victory over the second-seeded Bruins.
UCLA had two more chances to save its season. It couldn’t convert either.
His team down by two points, UCLA’s Tyger Campbell had the ball stripped for a rare turnover and the Bruins fouled Strawther, who missed the first free throw and made the second. The Bruins’ inbounds pass went to big man Kenneth Nwuba at midcourt, where he found Campbell for a three-pointer at the buzzer that was off the side of the rim.
For the second time in three years, the Bruins’ season ended in the cruelest fashion. For a breathless moment, it had seemed they might have persevered through it all. Down by 10 points with 2:40 left, UCLA (31-6) went on a 14-3 run ending in Bailey’s three-pointer. It wasn’t enough.
After exhaling deeply, Gonzaga (31-5) will play fourth-seeded Connecticut in the regional final Saturday after the Huskies routed Arkansas by 23 points in the earlier semifinal.
What started so well couldn’t have ended any worse for UCLA.
Before their late surge, the Bruins missed 11 consecutive field goals over one 11-minute stretch and made just two of 17 for a length part of the second half.
By the time Jaime Jaquez Jr. made a driving layup and was fouled with 1:14 left, his team was down 72-66 and in desperation mode.
The Bruins were outshot, 47.2% to 30%, in the second half while giving up 14 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points. Gonzaga’s Drew Timme was a bulldozer around the basket, finishing with 36 points and 13 rebounds.
Jaquez finished with 29 points on 12-for-25 shooting, Bailey added 19 points and Campbell had 14.
Fueled by its brawn around the basket, Gonzaga quickly wiped out a 13-point deficit by adjusting to the fast pace that somehow favored UCLA in the first half. A Malachi Smith floater over UCLA’s David Singleton gave the Zags a 61-59 lead, their first since early in the first half.
The Bruins were powerless to stop the deluge of baskets. Gonzaga ran off eight straight points to pull within 54-50 thanks to some uncharacteristic mistakes by the Bruins. UCLA failed to box out on a free throw, leading to a Smith put-back, and Jaquez rushed a three-pointer in transition that missed badly.
His team already missing top defender Jaylen Clark because of a leg injury and girding itself for the possible absences of Adem Bona and David Singleton as they fought their own injuries, UCLA coach Mick Cronin had pointedly said on the eve of the game that he would not make any excuses if the Bruins had to take on Gonzaga severely short-handed.
Bona’s status regarding his sore left shoulder became clear as soon as he walked onto the court for warmups in sweatpants and a black pullover, snatching rebounds for teammates. When a courtside fan called his name, the freshman center flexed his right arm and smiled.
There was a more encouraging sign when Singleton immediately hoisted three-pointers, heralding his return from the rolled ankle late in the Northwestern game last weekend.
There was something of an unofficial Gonzaga hex to snap, the Zags having prevailed in the last two NCAA tournament meetings between the teams in addition to the 20-point rout here last season.
Cronin had shielded himself from the memory of Sugg earlier this week when he rewatched the 2021 Final Four game, pressing pause before Suggs’ 40-footer banked off the backboard and through the net.
In a huge surprise, the teams played a frenetic first half and the pace favored UCLA. That’s because the Bruins were doing most of the running, their nine forced turnovers leading to 15 points.
The Zags put up little no resistance on Jaquez drives to the basket and had trouble marking Bailey on his way to nine early points.
Essentially conceding Timme the area around the basket by refusing to double-team him on most possessions, the Bruins locked down Gonzaga’s guards. Timme looked like he might single-handedly carry the Zags when he bulldozed his way to 15 points in the first nine minutes before going quiet for a stretch and finishing the first half with 19 points.
Just when it appeared the Zags had withstood UCLA’s first double-digit lead, pulling to within 31-29 on an old-fashioned three-point play by Sallis, the Bruins cranked up their defense again. Jaquez followed a steal with a layup and Campbell followed a strip with a three-pointer.
Campbell pumped both arms in excitement even after missing a jumper in the final seconds of the first half, an acknowledgment of his team’s crisp play.
The scoreboard told the story: UCLA 46, Gonzaga 33.
The lead would not hold up, Gonzaga finding more March magic.
For the Bruins, there was only more suffering to come against the team that has delivered so much this time of year.