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How UCLA’s energy and momentum sent BYU packing early in the NCAA Tournament

UCLA’s offensive barrage in the first half proved too much for Cougars

BYU forward Matt Haarms, left, battles for a rebound with UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) and teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) during the first 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

The Pac-12 flexed its muscles in the first week of the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis and BYU got caught in the teeth of that machine Saturday night after a hot UCLA team sent the Cougars packing 73-62.

The Bruins rode the hot hand of star Johnny Juzang’s 27 points and disrupted the Cougar offense enough to keep BYU off balanced and behind by double digits in all but the opening minutes of the second half.

The Pac-12 has five teams alive and with momentum. Hand it to that league — it came to play.

For the Cougars, they return home with a 20-win season and the first back-to-back losses by Mark Pope, albeit after an 11-day stretch with no games.

The Bruins, hot off a play-in win over Michigan State in which they came back from 19 points, kept that energy and momentum against the Cougars, who’d spent the week finding ways to keep busy with elevators and fun with their COVID-19 tests.

The Bruins were more athletic, more aggressive, had far more scoring weapons and played consistent ball. BYU had one of its traditional slow starts and after averaging 9 3-pointers a game for about a month, managed just three in this game.

UCLA hit eight 3s — a difference of 15 points — plenty of splash to make the difference. The Cougars did play UCLA even 35-35 in the second half. But it was that start. Seen that before.

The Cougars are not alone in taking their No. 6 and wasting the blessing.

This kind of loss/win is the story of the first week of the Big Dance.

Check that, it is the theme.

In a huge upset the same night, No. 14 seed Abilene Christian took down No. 3 Texas. Others to lose include No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Virginia, No. 5 Tennessee, No. 4 Purdue and No. 6 San Diego State.

In other words, in this COVID-19 Tournament that replaced the 2020 one that was canceled, it has turned into a tournament that blew up brackets. You couldn’t have planted dynamite with any more precision than this to make the entire affair a pain for the favored.

In this game, it’s hard to argue that No. 11 UCLA was far better than BYU. The Bruins looked like a team with momentum. BYU looked like they needed a wakeup call.

UCLA came out and punched he Cougars in the face and it took 20 minutes for BYU to respond. Oh, the Cougars played hard. But they played ineffective.

UCLA used the same defensive game plan as Pepperdine to take the Cougars into overtime in Las Vegas and the WCC Tournament. It was the same strategy No. 1 Gonzaga used to overcome a huge deficit to the Cougars and stage a comeback with the game tied with four minutes left at the Orleans Arena.

UCLA pressured and pushed BYU’s guards out of their passing comfort, forcing the Cougars to extend their offense. It was so effective that seniors Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette had to put it on their own shoulders in the second half to get any kind of scoring punch.

Barcello had 20 points and Averette added 15. Matt Haarms had 11 points and joined freshman Caleb Lohner with 10 rebounds each.

As disappointing as this loss is for Pope and his team, it should not take away from a very good season that started with knee surgery to Gavin Baxter. BYU had to endure multiple canceled games after a lot of preparation. It is the most disruptive protocol-controlled college basketball season of all time.

Somehow, BYU found a way to win 20 games and be among the national leaders in offense and defense, which is something to be proud of.

Pope’s troops worked hard and it is unfortunate they could not muster enough to look better against the Bruins.

The big question now is if Barcello, Averette and even Haarms might consider using the COVID-19 eligibility pause of their clocks to return.

Pope has some recruiting to do now they’re unpacking their suitcases.