It was a tale of two halves for the UCLA Bruins Thursday night as they lost in crushing fashion to the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Bruins have to be wondering how the Zags keep holding over them. While many will be quick to suggest how well the Bulldogs and star Drew Timme played, it felt much more like UCLA gave the game away.

The first half of basketball was exactly what you expect from UCLA and a scintillating effort on both defense and offense. If this team wasn’t missing two starters this late into the season, they’d be the favorite to win the title. That’s how good the Bruins played in that first half, and even late in the second half when it was getting close.

From the beginning, Coach Mick Cronin’s game plan seemed clear. Let Drew Timme have whatever he wanted on the offensive end, and close out on the rest of their scorers. Obviously, Timme is their leading scorer and best player. But he isn’t what generally makes the Zags a special basketball team; instead, it is usually their ability to surround their big man with well-above-average three-point shooting. On the season, the Bulldogs have six to seven different guys who shoot 35 percent or better from the three-point line.

The Bulldogs actually shot above 50 percent for the first half but still finished the half down by thirteen points. The Bruins struggled in transition defense against the Zags, and Timme was allowed whatever space he wanted in the paint. The Bruins did a great job of playing defense without fouling and isolating Timme in the block without sending a second defender. The reason the Bruins held such a lead was that they forced nine turnovers in the half. It seemed like every time the Bulldogs came down to set up a half-court set, the Bruins were picking their pocket. This allowed them to play out on the break, which is where they are best offensively.

The Bruins offense did whatever they wanted in the first half of the game. David Singleton started them off with a couple of quick threes, which they love to get from him because it injects some energy to the team. Tyger Campbell, whom I suggested last week needed to be better on the offensive side if he was going to shoot that much, was indeed a lot better Thursday night. He was getting to the lane, taking threes, assisting his teammates, and finished the first half with 13 points on 50 percent shooting. Amari Bailey who is the best pure offensive creator the Bruins have was also excellent in the first half of the game, shooting 5 for 7 with 13 points to help the Bruins build that big lead. Jaime Jaquez was also his typical self, finding scoring positions by cutting, setting off-ball screens, and attacking the lane. He finished the first half with a respectable 12 points, and the Bruins did all of this without having to set up any real offense for anyone. They attacked on the break from turnovers, they set good screens in the half-court, and they played a smooth team game offensively.

That unfortunately though is when it all came crumbling down for the Bruins. It was almost unbelievable to watch, this didn’t feel like the same team whatsoever in the second half. This was definitely a depth issue, as you could see on the faces of Jazuez and Campbell how gassed they were in the middle of the half. Every time the camera cut to those two players, they looked red all over and defeated. The Gonzaga defense started stepping up and defending the pick-and-roll better. But it felt like the Bruins didn’t have a reliable offensive game plan, and they got stuck when they didn’t know what to do. They stopped attacking the basket and looking for free throws, and started setting for bad takes – fadeaways, long contested threes, long quick two-pointers, and no more transition baskets. The Bruins sheer inability to rebound prevented their ability to play in transition anymore. It seemed like every single play, the Bulldogs were out getting two or three chances at a basket. And when you get that many looks in one possession, eventually shots are going to fall for you, despite the fact that UCLA generally played good enough defense to make them miss in the first place. These were the moments when not having Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona around really started to take their toll. All five starters played thirty-plus minutes in the game. Campbell and Bailey who were integral in the first half were nowhere to be found down the stretch. Campbell had 14 total points in the game, and 13 of them came in the first half. Bailey had 19 total points in the game, with only six of them coming after the break. There was no consistency when it came to trying to find them shots. The Bruins in the second half went a whopping 12 whole minutes without a field goal. An almost unbelievable fete if we didn’t see it happen. They were simply just stuck in the mud offensively in the second half, and there was no real scheme for them to fall back onto.

Even then, the Bulldogs were hardly better than the Bruins. Up by ten points with two and a half minutes left in regulation, the Zags let the Bruins back in the game. At a point in the game where everyone thought it was over, Jaime Jacquez made a couple of and-ones, and they were only down by two points. Then Drew Timme missed two huge free throws down the stretch to possibly isolate the game. That turned into the massive three-pointer by Amari Bailey that saw the Bruins take a one-point lead in the game with twelves second left. He came down the baseline with a simple J move to the elbow three spot, the defense all collapsed on Campbell’s drive, and Bailey was wide open for an easy jumper. Then, the basketball gods reminded us that they favor Gonzaga for some reason. Julian Strawther, the same guy who airballed a three-pointer with a minute and thirty seconds left, and was 4-14 to that point in the game, came down on what looked like a planned early shot so they could get a rebound if need be, stepped in and banged home 35-foot three-pointer with no hesitation. The same kid who would seconds later go on to miss another game-icing free throw, made a three-pointer from what can only be generously described as “Steph Curry range,” like he was shooting alone in the gym.

That was all she wrote. Campbell got off a decent look to try and tie the game, but it was too little too late. The Bruins are going to definitely be disappointed in this loss because they had so many chances to win it. But a lot of this core is still young and ready to come back next season. It’s going to be on Coach Cronin to find some serious wing depth and create an offense for them to rely on, and they could find themselves back in national title contention in no time. In the meantime, they’re going to be sitting around wondering how the Bulldogs managed to beat them again on another Hail Mary three-pointer.

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