UCLA suffers another Pac-12 gut punch in first loss to Washington of the Cronin era

At least UCLA didn’t have to wait long to find out what kind of night this was going to be.

Sixteen seconds into the game, a whistle blew. Foul on Sebastian Mack.

Before the ball could be inbounded, another whistle. Foul on Brandon Williams.

Four seconds later, a third whistle. Foul on Lazar Stefanovic.

In disbelief at what he was seeing, Bruins coach Mick Cronin earned a technical foul for complaining about the cacophony of calls.

There were more oddities to come. UCLA played some of its worst defense of the Cronin era, particularly on the perimeter. By the time the game mercifully ended, Cronin and his team had absorbed another gut punch.

The Bruins had never fallen to Washington under Cronin before their 94-77 setback on Thursday night at Alaska Airlines Arena, making this result feel like something far more deflating than another defeat in a lost season.

Sunny-day-in-Seattle things tended to happen whenever Cronin’s teams faced the Huskies, especially on this court. His first batch of Bruins turned around their season after Jake Kyman made seven three-pointers here in a pulsating victory. A year later, Johnny Juzang poured in a career-high 32 points to spark a win.

When a spate of positive coronavirus tests among Washington players and coaches pushed back a game the following season, it only delayed the inevitable; the Bruins won that one as well. And, in their meeting here last year, UCLA’s 25-point rout was as breathtaking as the views from the Space Needle.

Contrast that with the gloom that enshrouded the Bruins on Thursday during their third consecutive loss, not to mention a pitiful encore to their flat showing against rival USC. UCLA gave up one open three-pointer after another, the Huskies making eight of their first 10 shots from long range and 10 of 11 shots overall during one stretch late in the first half.

The flat defensive showing dropped the Bruins (14-14 overall, 9-8 Pac-12) into fifth place in the conference standings. That’s significant because only the top four teams get a bye into the quarterfinal round, meaning UCLA is on track to have to win an extra game as part of what was an already unlikely path to reaching the NCAA tournament.

It seemed like UCLA could wave the white flag with 14 minutes 45 seconds left in the game after Washington’s Moses Wood made a three-pointer to push his team into a 17-point lead. Cronin called a timeout, but the only thing left to discuss was how quickly everyone could shower and board the team plane to Pullman.

Five days after they were essentially no-shows against USC, UCLA guards Stefanovic and Dylan Andrews combined for much of their team’s offense. Stefanovic scored a season-high 22 points and Andrews bounced back from his scoreless showing against the Trojans with 21 points, making nine of 15 shots. It meant little given the Bruins’ defense, or lack thereof.

Realizing he was as open as a 24-hour convenience store, Washington’s Keion Brooks Jr. kept shooting on the way to a game-high 32 points. Brooks made eight of 14 shots, including six of seven three-pointers, to help the Huskies (16-13, 8-10) snap their nine-game losing streak against the Bruins.

Washington shot 55.6% overall, making an absurd 15 of 24 shots (62.5%) from three-point range while beating UCLA for the first time since Feb. 2, 2019. The Huskies were so hot that guard Sahvir Wheeler banked in a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock from about 40 feet out with less than a minute to play.

These teams will keep meeting as conference rivals for years to come after Washington followed UCLA to the Big Ten.

Given their recent history, those games had felt like scheduled wins for the Bruins before their unraveling here Thursday.

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