LAS VEGAS — Not again. Not again. Not again.
Two years later, another deep Gonzaga shot.
Two years later, another desperate UCLA stare.
Two years later, another dagger.
This can’t keep happening, can it? Gonzaga can’t keep beating UCLA in the final seconds of an NCAA tournament game with a swish out of nowhere, can it?
Believe it. Accept it. Curse it.
With six seconds left in their Sweet 16 matchup Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, after the Bruins had fought back from a second-half collapse to take a one-point lead, Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther hit a 35-foot jumper to steal an unbelievable win, smother a raucous crowd, and stoke the sorriest of memories.
Dancing Zags. Crumpled Bruins. Season over. An eventual 79-76 loss. Just like that. Just like then.
Two years ago, in the final second of overtime in the national semifinals, the Zags’ Jalen Suggs hit a 40-footer to do the exact same thing, and how incredibly weird and unimaginable does that seem?
Although, two years ago, UCLA was the big underdog and achieved somewhat of a moral victory in a daunting defeat.
Thursday night was different. The Bruins were favored. The Bruins had taken a 13-point halftime lead. And even though Bruins had briefly taken the lead in the final seconds on a three-pointer by freshman Amari Bailey, UCLA blew this game.
Their fight, so powerful for so long, suddenly faded.
Their teamwork, so smooth for so many seasons, suddenly broke.
Their experience, so important for this veteran UCLA basketball team seemingly headed to the Final Four, suddenly deserted the Bruins.
After brilliantly racing to that halftime edge, UCLA inexplicably stumbled, staggered and eventually collapsed in a loss that ended with Strawther’s bomb but actually occurred long before that.
A game that was seemingly in control careened into the darkest of ditches in the second half with the Bruins having no idea how to save themselves. A gleaming effort became a smoking wreckage filled with bricks, bad defense and regrets.
They couldn’t make a shot, missing 11 straight at one point in the second half, going 11 minutes, 16 seconds without a field goal. They couldn’t stop Gonzaga’s veteran center Drew Timme, as he owned them for 36 points and 13 rebounds.
They stopped sharing the ball, jacking up wild shots in hastened possessions. They stopped battling for second chances, submitting to the equally tough and equally veteran Zags.
Maybe the injuries finally caught up with them.
Their best defensive player was wheeling around on a scooter. Their best big man was sitting on the bench in street clothes. They were counted out when they lost Jaylen Clark for the season and were counted out even more when they lost Adem Bona for chunks of this tournament, and guess what? Maybe the experts were right.
Or maybe Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell finally grew weary of shouldering the heaviest of loads, as they shot a combined 17 of 41 from the field.
Gonzaga was feared as a UCLA-deflating powerhouse, with a nation-leading 11 consecutive wins and the kind of veteran talent that would severely test UCLA’s resolve.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The game began at a breakneck pace that should have favored the highest-scoring team in America, but UCLA was doing it better, attacking more furiously, smooth Bailey scoring nine of the Bruins first 16 points while matching Gonzaga’s Timme wow for wow. The Bruins displayed a freedom rarely seen on a Mick Cronin team, and proved worthy of running and gunning.
The Bruins finished the first half with a 46-33 lead and a 9-1 edge in the turnover battle with an amazing seven steals.
But Gonzaga fought its way back in the second half, riding Timme and Malachi Smith, winning the battle under the basket, tying it at 59-all midway through the half.
UCLA was suddenly missing everything. Gonzaga was suddenly grabbing everything.
Smith hit a floater that gave Gonzaga a 61-59 lead with 8:52 left and suddenly the cries of “U-C-L-A” from a predominant Bruins crowd were replaced with, “Let’s Go Zags!”
The rest was history.
The worst kind of history.
A history that repeated itself.