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BYU quietly bows out in first round of NCAA Tournament with disappointing loss to UCLA

The Cougars never had the lead, never got going against No. 11 seeded Bruins

BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) reaches for a rebound with UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) and BYU forward Caleb Lohner, second from left, and BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021.
AJ Mast, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — BYU’s performance in the NCAA Tournament Saturday night against UCLA was kind of the equivalent of getting stuck in a hotel elevator.

Once again, the Cougars were unable to get out of the first round as the Bruins advanced with a 73-62 victory at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

For most of the night, the No. 6 seeded Cougars played more like a No. 11 seed while the No. 11 seeded Bruins played more like a No. 6 seed.

“It’s disappointing, obviously,” said BYU senior Matt Haarms. “It’s tough to go out like that. They outplayed us. They deserved to win the game. It’s tough. It’s hard going out in the first round.”

What makes it even more disappointing for the Cougars? No. 14 Abilene Christian upset No. 3 Texas 53-52 Saturday night. That’s the opponent for UCLA in the second round Monday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.

Bruin guard Johnny Juzang, who suffered a right ankle injury in last Thursday’s First Four overtime win over Michigan State, looked unstoppable at times against BYU. He scored a game-high 27 points on 10 of 16 shooting, including three 3-pointers.

“It’s a great feeling. This is what we live for. This is the height of college basketball, March Madness and playing for the Bruins. I’m from Los Angeles, playing with a lot of guys I’ve known and a lot of — everybody we’re all brothers,” Juzang said. “Putting on this jersey with my brothers and coming out playing for the home team. And able to make everybody on the team proud and everybody in the stands, it’s a great feeling to bring home wins for the UCLA Bruins. We have a great team. I just love going out there with my brothers.”

Jules Bernard had 16 points and Jaime Jaquez added 13 for the Bruins.

“They played great today,” coach Mark Pope said of UCLA. “They caused us all kinds of problems.”

Cougar seniors Alex Barcello (20 points), Brandon Averette (15 points) and Haarms (11 points, 10 rebounds) provided almost all the offense for BYU. Freshman Caleb Lohner had six points and 10 boards.

“Congratulations to BYU on their season. Alex Barcello had a great game,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin. “He’s obviously a great kid, great player. ... Guys like him are great for college basketball.”

One of the biggest storylines of the night? The Cougars made just 3 of 17 3-pointers while the Bruins knocked down 8 of 19.

“Clearly, we didn’t shoot the ball well tonight,” Pope said. “They had us on our heels in the first half. We’ve been able to overcome nights like that this season. We weren’t able to do that tonight. We just didn’t get it done.”

Cronin loved the way his team bottled up BYU’s offense.

“Tremendous effort by our players tonight. It’s not easy to defend BYU. It’s actually extremely hard. ‘Not easy’ is not the best way to say it. It’s extremely hard to defend them. Many, many try. I think they’ve had over 70 in every game since some point in January,” he said. “The way they shoot the ball, pass the ball and space you. So took everything our guys had on the defensive end tonight. That’s where our focus was. And we were able to take them off the 3-point line. It wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how hard that was for our guys and how proud I am of how hard they played. Played with a lot of pride.”

Another glaring stat, also indicative of UCLA’s ability to disrupt the Cougars’ offensive flow: They had just five assists on 25 made baskets.

Hot-shooting UCLA, which entered the NCAA Tournament on a four-game losing streak, was in control the entire game.

Amazingly, the Cougars never led and they trailed by as many as 14 in the second half.

BYU whittled the deficit to four points after a 10-0 run early in the second half, but UCLA quickly pushed its lead back to 11 points, 54-43.

“Early in the second half we had an opportunity there,” Haarms said. “We had to keep the momentum going but we weren’t able to. That was the closest we got in the second half.”

“I was proud of my guys in the second half. They kept fighting and chipping away,” Pope said. “In crucial moments, we couldn’t get stops. Johnny was a handful tonight. It’s March. It happens. Credit UCLA. We couldn’t get over the hump.”

The rest of the game, BYU could only trade baskets with the Bruins and couldn’t make up the difference.

“The first half was a struggle because of Juzang,” Haarms said. “He was coming clean and getting good shots. We did a better job in the second half, but we weren’t able to claw back.”

The Cougars played UCLA even in the second half (35-35) but that wasn’t enough after a listless first-half performance.

BYU finished its season with a 20-7 record. UCLA improved to 19-9.

It’s the first time the Cougars lost two consecutive games under Pope in his two seasons at the helm.

Saturday marked BYU’s 30th NCAA Tournament appearance. Since 1995, the Cougars have reached the round of 32 only twice, in 2010 and 2011.

From the outset Saturday, BYU seemed uptight and struggled to find a rhythm. Haarms missed a shot from close range. Barcello’s first field goal attempt, a 3-pointer, was an airball. Lohner missed an open layup. The Cougars missed their first six shots from the field.

UCLA, on the other hand, picked up where it left off from its 86-80 overtime victory against Michigan State Thursday night.

Juzang hit 8 of 11 shots in the first half, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. Jaquez, who poured in a career-high 27 points against the Spartans, hit both of his 3-pointers and had eight points at halftime.

The Bruins led by as many as 13 in the first half (34-21) and they were up 38-27 at halftime.

It was that kind of frustrating night for BYU, which heads back to Provo. As for UCLA, which is now riding a two-game winning streak, it has to like its path to the Sweet 16.