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By Bill Seals
Sports Reporter 

UCLA to battle USC after a stunning last second loss to Utah

 

February 22, 2024

George Laase (FSG)

UCLA will need a big scoring game by Lazar Stefanovic if they expect to beat USC on Saturday.

Under head coach Mick Cronin, the UCLA Bruins are considered one of the best defensive teams in men's college basketball. In his first four seasons at UCLA, the defense has gotten the Bruins to a Final Four appearance, three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances, and a regular season Pac-12 conference championship in the 2022-2023 season. But even a good defensive team cannot win without help from the offense.

The Bruins have struggled on offense this season and it caught up with them again last Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. The Utah Utes came from behind and beat the Bruins, 70-69, on a tip-in with less than one second left in the game. The loss ended a six-game winning streak for the Bruins and dropped them to 9-6 in the Pac-12 and their overall record to 14-12. The win improved the Utes overall record to 16-10 and they are 7-8 in the Pac-12, in a tie for 6th place. UCLA is fourth in the Pac-12 behind first place Arizona (11-3, 20-5), second place Washington State (11-4, 20-6) and third place Oregon (9-5, 17-8).

The Bruins led 64-60 with 3:56 remaining in the game and had the ball, but missed five of their next six shots, while Utah point guard Deivon Smith had four points and an assist to lead an 8-3 run and give Utah a 68-67 lead with 19 seconds remaining. A Dylan Andrews jump shot with 6.6 seconds remaining gave the Bruins a 69-68 lead.

After a UCLA timeout, the speedy Smith took a pass from center Branden Carlson at mid-court and ran past the slower Bruins, but center Adem Bona forced a miss on the layup and the ball bounced off the rim, where Carlson grabbed it and put it back in with just 0.2 seconds remaining to give the Utes the lead. The Bruins did not have enough time to get off a shot and the game was over.

Carlson, a two-time Pac-12 All-Conference selection, and Smith each had 17 points for the Utes. Smith added 10 assists. The victory gave the Utes a season sweep of the Bruins, only the second time that has happened since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2012.

Lazar Stefanovic, a former Utah player led the Bruins with 19 points, and Andrews added 15 points. They were the only two players in double figures. Freshman star Sebastian Mack, the Bruins leading scorer, was ejected with 9:53 remaining in the first half for a Flagrant-2 foul. Mack landed a forearm into the throat of Carlson, who collapsed to the floor. Mack scored just four points in the game. Bona played only 18 minutes in the game due to foul trouble. He had just 7 points and 3 rebounds. Cronin was not happy with the bad fouls committed by the Bruins in the game.

The Bruins offense has struggled with Mack and Bona in the lineup, and without them it was even more of a struggle. The Bruins are last in scoring in the Pac-12 at 66.2 points per game, last in field goal percentage at 41.7%, and last in assists at 11.2 per game. The defense has kept them in games and given them a chance to win. UCLA leads the conference in scoring defense at 64.1 points per game and are second in field goal percentage defense at 41.5%.

"Obviously a hard-fought game," Cronin said. "Disappointed in the outcome. Adem's fourth foul really changed the game in a horrendous way. We don't foul jump shooters. We were up six when that happened. Anytime we had a chance to go on a run, we shot ourselves in the foot. Berke (Buyukuncel) had one in the first half as well, pushing a guy. The reason we were winning was we stopped doing dumb stuff – dumb fouls, in particular, and they were back tonight."

Cronin added, "Smith was fast, and we failed miserably in our game plan to back up and make him shoot. All the way up until the last play, the goal was to back up and make him shoot. He got it to the rim on the last two plays. Our whole game plan was to back up and make him shoot. We didn't get the job done. That falls on me. So, disappointing."

Last Thursday Night (February) at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins defeated the Colorado Buffs, 64-60. The Bruins were up 43-29 early in the second half with 18:34 left in the game. The Buffs rallied to tie the game at 51-51 with 6:51 remaining in the game. The Bruins went cold offensively and scored just 8 points over a 12-minute period of time.

Fortunately for the Bruins, they held the Buffs to zero fast break points and were able to grind out the win. Mack led the Bruins with 19 points in an important win for the Bruins. The Buffs are in 5th place in the Pac-12 conference, one game behind the Bruins.

George Laase FSG)

USC's 6'9 forward Kijani Wright tries to dribble past an Oregon State player during a game this season at USC.

The Bruins need to hold on to 4th place in the Pac-12 in order to earn a bye in the first round of the Pac-12. The top four teams in the final Pac-12 regular season standings will get a bye in the first round of the post-season Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

The Bruins will take on the USC Trojans on Saturday Night, February 24 at 7:00 PM at Pauley Pavilion on the Westwood campus. The game will be televised on ESPN. The Bruins routed the Trojans earlier this season, 65-50 at the Galen Center on the USC campus. The Trojans are in 11th place in the Pac-12 with a 4-11 record in conference and a 10-16 record overall.

The Trojans are led by senior guard Boogie Ellis, a first-team Pac-12 all-conference guard in the 2022-2023 season and freshman five-star guard Isaiah Collier. Both Ellis and Collier are averaging 16 points per game. This will be a tough matchup if the Bruins don't find another consistent scorer to go with Mack, Adams, Bona, and Stefanovic.

 

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