Plaschke: Another maddening loss dims UCLA's March hopes

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It was a sequence that symbolized a season.

One moment Pauley Pavilion was rocking and UCLA was rolling, players screaming, fans singing.

“You gotta fight…for your right…to party!”

The next moment, silence.

For one glorious instant Sunday afternoon, the resurgent Bruins had conquered another demon, Dylan Andrews swishing a go-ahead jump shot with six seconds remaining, the bullies from Utah collapsing at his feet.

The next instant, devastation.

Mick Cronin blew it. The UCLA defensive effort blew it. The entire season suddenly became one prolonged slo-motion mistake.

In the final tortuous seconds, Utah’s Deivon Smith dribbled the ball from midcourt and split UCLA’s Will McClendon and Lazar Stefanovic on his way to the basket, where he shot a wild layup over the reach of Adem Bona.

The shot bounced off the top of the backboard and into the hands of Utah’s Branden Carlson, who gently dropped it through the basket at the buzzer.

Utah 70, UCLA 69.

“It feels horrible,” said a forlorn Stefanovic afterward. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it.”

So he repeated himself.

“It feels horrible,” he said.

Such a small margin, such a giant blow.

The Bruins’ hope for revenge after losing by 46 to Utah earlier this year? Gone.

The Bruins’ hope that they could continue a roll during which they’ve won eight of nine games? Gone.

The Bruins’ margin for error in their painstaking attempt to crash next month’s NCAA basketball tournament? Gone.

UCLA, 14-12, must sweep their remaining five games or win the Pac-12 tournament, with both feats seeming all but impossible after Saturday’s debacle.

“We know the position we’re in–win every game that’s left…so it does hurt,” said Stefanovic. “We’ve got to learn from it, get better, understand why we lost and get going from there and try to win the next one.”

Even Cronin can learn from this one, which illustrated how far these Bruins have fallen. He’s one of the country’s best late-season coaches — his four previous UCLA teams each finished strong — yet on Sunday he made a crucial clutch-time error.

After Andrews gave the Bruins the lead, seemingly forcing the Utes to hustle downcourt with no timeouts, Cronin called a timeout. He did what? Yes, he called a timeout.

This unnecessary pause gave Utah a chance to diagram a play…which it did in spectacular fashion.

“I’m sure I’m gonna go home and be mad that I called time out,” Cronin acknowledged afterward. “But I wanted to set my defense so I could slow (Smith) down, but we failed. But that’s why I did it.”

McClendon said they knew what Cronin was trying to tell them on the bench during that timeout. But they just couldn’t pull it off.

“We should have done a better job of staying in front of (Smith)…things are going so fast…you don’t want to get a foul…we should have just stayed in front of him,” he said, later adding, “When you have a scouting report like that and the coaches do a great job of letting us know, preparing us. ..we’ve got to meet them halfway…we didn’t do that to the best of our ability.”

It’s been like that all season. These Bruins are just too young, too inexperienced, too difficult to coach. Some of that blame falls on Cronin, some of it on the players, and all of it was on display Sunday, when, once again, UCLA basketball didn’t look anything like UCLA basketball.

Cronin was asked what his Bruin kids could learn from this, and he sighed.

“We’ve learned enough,” he said. “We’ve had enough losses.”

Even when they tried to fight, they fought wrong, as leading scorer Sebastian Mack was thrown out of the game midway through the first half after nailing Carlson with a forearm shiver.

When asked about the effect of Mack’s loss, Cronin wouldn’t bite.

“Excuses are for losers,” he said. “I mean, it was still five-on-five…this is not hockey, OK? They weren’t in the penalty. We got to sub somebody in. We didn’t get the job done and that’s on me.”

Throughout the postgame news conference, Cronin ripped himself as much as his players. Granted, he said his team did some “dumb” stuff and he criticized them for, “egregiously unintelligent fouls,” but his usual anger was mostly muted.

“Look, we’re no juggernaut, the guys are competing, I’m proud of that,” he said. “But we’re about winning at UCLA so we got to play a lot smarter.”

A month ago, I ripped Cronin after the Bruins had lost to conference-worst Cal in a game that brought out the worst in the coach. Cronin threw his jacket on the floor during a sideline tirade, then afterward refused to meet with the media. A few days earlier he had publicly and brutally trashed his team. I wrote that it all added up to a meltdown.

“Mick Cronin is slowly dissolving into a powder blue puddle” I wrote.

Shortly after that Cal loss, his team began its hot streak. After Sunday’s loss, it’s apparent that the meltdown has been mitigated.

Cronin looks pale and disconsolate, but he showed up for the postgame rehash and answered every question and accepted full responsibility.

So maybe the coach is evolving…even if his team isn’t quite there yet.

“Look, if you ain’t matured by now…it is what it is,” he said.

So goes the basis for the theme of the 2023-24 UCLA men’s basketball season.

It is what it wasn’t.

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