March 19, 2017
Final Stats | Notes | USATSI Photo Gallery | Photo Gallery (Ben Solomon)
By Bill Koch
SACRAMENTO - For a group of players determined to roll deep into the NCAA Tournament, the end was difficult to accept. Some spoke softly in their Golden 1 Arena locker room as they politely answered reporters' questions after the game. Others stared straight ahead or bowed their heads in disbelief.
For the moment, the 30 games they won this season - the second-most in school history - seemed a hollow achievement. The pain of their 79-67 loss to UCLA on Sunday in the second round of the South Regional was too fresh. This was the time to deal with the reality that this group would never compete together again. There would be another time to more fully appreciate what they accomplished.
"Brothers like this, they don't come all the time," said senior guard Kevin Johnson. "This is a tight-knit family and to see it be all over with is pretty tough."
Jarron Cumberland led UC with 15 points, followed by Johnson and Jacob Evans with 13 each. Gary Clark scored 11 to go with eight rebounds and six assists. Senior point guard Troy Caupain scored nine points to give him 1,308 for his career, which ranks 24th in school history. He finished with 514 assists, the most ever by a UC player, and played in 137 games, tied with Dion Dixon for third in UC history.
UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who's expected to be taken with one of the first three picks in this summer's NBA draft, led the Bruins with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Bryce Alford scored 16.
No. 6 seed UC, which finished 30-6, saw its proud defense shredded in the second half when the Bearcats were outscored, 49-34, after they had led, 33-30, at halftime.
Maybe it was too much to ask for UC to slow down the most potent offense in college basketball, but the Bearcats believed they could do it, especially after they held the third-seeded Bruins (31-4) to 30 points in the first half - their lowest first-half point total of the season - and to 37.5 percent shooting.
"We did exactly what we were supposed to do in the first half," Caupain said.
Aside from the seven turnovers they committed, the Bearcats followed the game plan to the letter. They made enough shots to get their defense set before the Bruins could get into transition and they were patient enough on offense. Neither team had a fast-break basket in the first half.
"We had them right where we wanted them," said junior forward Kyle Washington. "The pace was good. The tempo was good."
But they were unable to stifle the Bruins' offense after intermission. UCLA started the second half on a 10-3 run to take a 40-36 lead and before long the Bearcats were letting their offensive discipline slip. They began to shoot more 3-pointers and when they missed, the Bruins streaked down the floor unimpeded, putting their abundant offensive skills on full display.
"Going inside and scoring, going inside and getting fouled, and knocking down some open shots was the key to this game," said UC coach Mick Cronin. "Once we went inside and came up empty and then missed some wide open shots, then the transition began. I thought Gary got fouled a couple of times. We tried to go right at TJ Leaf and get his third foul, but we didn't get the call.
"Once that started happening, it punched a whole in our game plan and then we started shooting too many jump shots. When you shoot jump shots and don't make them against this team, even though you're wide open, they're gonna make you pay."
The tide turned for good in UCLA's favor with 13 and a half minutes to play. The Bearcats led, 47-46, after a Cumberland layup. Alford then missed a three for UCLA. On UC's next possession, Caupain drove the lane but instead of taking what appeared to be a high percentage shot near the basket, he kicked the ball out to Johnson, who missed a three.
That opened the floodgates. Ball hit a three for the Bruins, then drilled another one after Cumberland missed one from long-range. A missed jump shot by Washington sent the Bruins back into transition and this time it was Alford who made a three. In the space of 64 seconds, UCLA had gone from being down one to being up eight.
"You can't compete with them when it comes to shooting jump shots," Clark said. "You can't match them jump shot for jump shot."
UC got back to within five points twice after that, and trailed by only seven with 4:28 to play, but UCLA reeled off six straight points to put the game out of reach with 2:12 to go.
Washington had a sub-par shooting night, scoring only four points, nine below his average, on 2-of-10 shooting.
"I'm proud of my teammates," he said. "They did a great job. I just wish I could have followed suit."
Cronin defended his big man, but acknowledged that his unusual lack of production made the Bearcats' already difficult task more challenging.
"Kyle Washington has had an unbelievable year," Cronin said, "but those are shots that he's made all year. Him being 2-for-10 was tough on us. If you're playing transition defense against this team, it's only a matter of time. They're the best offensive team in college basketball in a long time."
UC shot a respectable 44.8 percent and made eight of 10 free throws, but failed to score a fast-break basket the entire game. The Bruins committed only three turnovers to UC's 10, which led to 12 UCLA points, and they shot 63.3 percent in the second half. Still, the Bearcats held them 11 points below their average.
But it wasn't nearly enough.
"If we could have kept scoring and controlling the tempo, we would have had our chance to win," Cronin said. "It was a tough draw against this team. It was gonna take a special effort to beat this UCLA team in California. We played as well as we could obviously. I feel bad for the kids right now. In college basketball, everything's sailing along and then it's like you fall off a cliff. You don't see it coming either. It's like bang."
You could see the sting of that sudden ending on the faces of the UC players and hear it in their voices in the postgame locker room.
"How close we bonded and how close we got this year was special," Caupain said. "We'll go down forever a brotherhood."
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.