All Ball: Cronin’ day will come, Westbrook’s Will Smith moment

Mira Costa senior Dalia Frias (photographed at the Bay League Championships in 2019) broke a 40-year-old state record for the 1600 meter and one mile at the Adidas Meet of Champions High School Distance Classic on Saturday at Azusa Pacific University. Frias’s 1600 meter time of 4:33:54, and mile time of 4:35:06 earned her the number one ranking in the country for the two distances. She is also the top ranked runner nationally in the 3200. (The two distances were timed during the same race.) Photo by Ray Vidal

By Paul Teetor     

The UCLA men’s basketball team coulda, shoulda and woulda won their Sweet Sixteen game against North Carolina Friday night. But they didn’t win, and the bitter disappointment and sense of a golden opportunity lost will linger with Bruins fans for the next 12 months.

They could have won because they had the superior team in every respect but one: rebounding. And in the end, that lack of strong inside play killed them. They gave up 15 offensive rebounds and 19-second chance points on stick-backs and tap outs to perimeter shooters. You can’t win a late-round tournament game like that. 

“We knew that was going to be the biggest problem,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said afterwards. “We didn’t get the job done on the defensive glass. They’ve got too much firepower to give them second shots, third shots at times.”

They should have won because they led by three points with two minutes to go and were in a commanding position to advance to the Elite Eight game Sunday afternoon. But they let one Tarheel player get hot at the very end, an unheralded guard named Caleb Love, and that was enough to erase their lead. Love was all Carolina needed to win a game that easily could have gone the other way. 

And the Bruins would have won if only they had hit a couple of shots that normally go down and if they had played a little smarter in the last two minutes.

But whatever else there is to say about this discouraging and dispiriting 73-66 loss – a loss that stung like a Will Smith slap in front of a national TV audience — one thing you can’t say is that they didn’t play hard enough.

They played their hearts out, because that’s what every Mick Cronin team does.

The stinging disappointment of this last-second loss was only accentuated Sunday afternoon when 8th seeded North Carolina went on to destroy 15th seeded St. Peters 69-49. Carolina now advances to the Final Four in New Orleans next weekend, but it should have been UCLA headed for the Big Easy in prime position to win its first national title since 1995.

Indeed, there is no doubt UCLA would have dispatched St. Peters, the Cinderella Team of the tournament, just as Carolina did. Too big, too skilled, too talented and too deep – UCLA has all the same advantages that Carolina had over the plucky but overmatched and overwhelmed Peacocks.

History shows that these low-seeded teams that upset their way through the early rounds of March Madness eventually lose at some point when they come up against a top-seeded team that has also fought its way through the early rounds. By that time the higher seeds are battle-toughened, better focused on the job at hand, and more cognizant of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of them. 

In fact, St. Peters had knocked off third-seeded Purdue before UCLA and Carolina took the court in Philadelphia, so Bruins fans were marveling at their good fortune: all they had to do now was to beat North Carolina, which had knocked top-seeded and defending national champion Baylor out of the Bruins path to the Final Four, and then beat overmatched St. Peters and boom, just like that, they would be in the Final Four for a second straight season.

But it was not to be, and dissecting the loss is painful but necessary as the Bruins reload to make another run at it next season.

The game came down to the second half and specifically the final minute and 40 seconds. Love scored 27 of his career-high 30 points in the second half and eight in a final 12-3 run – including devastating back-to-back 3-pointers that broke the Bruins hearts.

All Ball has been a big fan of Coach Cronin from the moment he arrived in Westwood three years ago to revive the dominant-turned-dormant hoops program. And there’s no doubt he is a defensive-oriented coach. If you don’t play all-in defense every minute you’re on the court, you won’t play for Cronin at all.

So it was shocking and disconcerting to watch Love go crazy in the second half without Cronin doing anything special to slow him down. Specifically, he had his best perimeter defender, Jaylen Clark, on the bench for much of the time Love was running and gunning, totally out of the Bruins’ control.

It didn’t have to be that way.

But Cronin is a smart guy, and he will learn from his mistake and not make it again.

Even though they lost, the objective truth from a neutral fan’s point of view is that this was a terrific game with a blistering pace, a welcome contrast to the slow moving, low-scoring pace in most of the other Sweet Sixteen games. The game was ultra-exciting thanks to the 14 lead changes and eight ties.

And thanks to Twitter and other social media commenting on the game in real time, there was a late-game sequence that generated a ton of criticism for Cronin for not ordering the Bruins to immediately foul. The second of Love’s back-to-back 3-pointers, from the deep right wing, gave Carolina a 67-64 lead with 1:03 left – still plenty of time for the Bruins to come back and win.

At the other end, Jaime Jaquez missed a jump shot and Carolina’s Armando Bacot rebounded it with 42 seconds left. But rather than fouling him to preserve precious seconds, the Bruins let the Tar Heels run their offense, and Tarheels center Bacot – who looked like Shaq against ineffective UCLA centers Cody Riley and Myles Johnson — tipped in R.J. Davis’ miss with 15 seconds left for a 69-64 lead. That was the ball game right there.

His players stuck up for Cronin and his decision not to foul sooner in the post-game media session.

“When we’re in that position we’re always thinking, stay solid on defense, get a stop and get a rebound,” Jules Bernard said. “But that’s not how it went.”

Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell scored on a drive with 9.6 seconds left to cut the lead to three points, but by that time it was too late for the fouling strategy to work. Love made both free throws, and RJ Davis added two more free throws with three-tenths of a second left for the final seven-point margin that didn’t reflect just how close this game really was.

“For it to end the way it did, it hurts,” said Johnny Juzang, who starred during the Bruins’ Final Four run last spring but was a shadow of that guy this spring. “I felt like we had a real chance to do something really big, so it’s just really unfortunate. We all love playing for each other and playing for Coach Cronin.”

Within minutes of the game’s depressing ending, Bruins fans thoughts turned to next season. After all, Campbell, Jaquez, Juzang, Bernard and Riley had all come back to take care of unfinished business. Instead, they lost two rounds earlier than they did last year. Now Jaquez, Juzang and Campbell – all juniors with another year of eligibility left – will have to decide whether to give it one more college try or turn pro.

But the harsh reality is that none of them are locks to be drafted by the NBA next June. Jaquez has the best chance, but a bad ankle injury really slowed him down in this game as he missed his last 11 shots. Not a good look to go out on if you’re trying to impress NBA scouts.

Juzang, who had been projected as a mid-second round pick last year after his scorching NCAA run, has disappeared from most mock drafts this year and frankly did not look ready to take that next step. He would be smart to come back and spend a lot of time in the weight room. His primary skill – shooting – is at an NBA level, but he doesn’t have an NBA-ready body and doesn’t look like he could stand up to the rigors of an 82-game season playing against grown men.

The good news for UCLA fans is that Cronin has a great recruiting class coming in next fall, including highly rated 6-foot-9 center Adam Bona of northern California. He also has a commitment from 6-foot-5 Amari Bailey of Sierra Canyon, the top talent among LA prep players. He’s a scoring machine who looks like he will be making a one-year pit stop in Westwood on his way to the NBA. 

It didn’t happen last year, and it didn’t happen this year. It may not even happen next year. In a single elimination format, everything has to go just right – including having a little luck. But sooner or later Cronin is going to bring a national championship home to Westwood.

It’s a question of when, not if.

Until then, this year will be known as the year they woulda, coulda and shoulda won it.

Lakers Sinking Fast; Westbrick Whining

For Lakers fans, the unthinkable is right around the corner: the Lakers are so bad they’re going to miss the playoffs.

OK, technically they’re not eliminated, yet. But Sunday night’s horrible 116-108 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans — after leading by 23 points in the first half — was yet another new low in a season full of new lows, each one worse than the last.

Their record now stands at a pathetic 31-43, 30 games behind first place Phoenix.  Even more incredible, they have lost 15 of their last 20 games. Beyond that they have lost the will to compete and now seem to realize that they would get crushed in the first round even if they did make the playoffs.

So why even bother competing so late in a lost season?

To add injury to insult, LeBron James – who scored 39 points to extend his streak of personal brilliance and push his scoring average to just past 30 a game, best in the entire league — sprained his left ankle late in the game. After the game he was limping badly and was candid when asked about the ankle and the atmosphere around the team. 

“The ankle feels horrible,” he said. “And the losing feels like sh… I mean, excuse my language but that’s what it feels like.”

The loss dropped the Lakers to 10th place in the west, a half-game behind the Pelicans and only a game ahead of the on-rushing San Antonio Spurs. Under the new playoff format, teams in first through sixth place qualify automatically for the playoffs.

The teams that finish seventh through tenth qualify only for the play-in tournament that will determine the last two playoff teams. The Lakers had been clinging to a faint hope: that they could finish ninth or tenth and Anthony Davis would come back from the injured list and they would win two games in the play-in tournament to get into the real playoffs.

Now even that sliver of hope is disappearing down the drain. 

Meanwhile, the biggest reason for the Lakers collapse – the selfish, erratic and petulant play of Russell Westbrook – became an issue in an unusual, even unprecedented way: Westbrook claims the fans, the media and opposing players are being mean to him.


The irony of Wesbrook’s complaints about his hurt feelings is rich enough to start a hedge fund.

For 13 seasons, the uber-athletic Westbrook has routinely trash-talked guys trying to guard him, strutted around like a peacock after making a spectacular play, and even developed a signature mocking motion of “rocking the baby” after humiliating someone with a ferocious dunk, a quicksilver steal, or a game-winning shot.

But this year the sneaker has been on the other foot. This year guys he used to mock have given it back to him in spades, trying to make up for all those years of humiliation. As the corporate handbook says, be careful how you treat people on the way up because you’re going to run into them on the way down.

Well, he’s on the way down now – even while making $44 million this year and $47 million next year – and he has been constantly mocked and humiliated, or clowned, as they say at Live Oak Park.

It all came to a head recently when Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverly, who has had a long-running beef with Westbrook, held his nose, made a face like he was smelling trash, and pointed at Westbrook after stealing the ball from him.

That was bad enough for the overly proud, and thin-skinned Lakers guard, a former NBA Most Valuable Player who is having the worst season of his career.

Then in Sacramento the operations staff played a riff from the Foreigner song “Cold as Ice” every time he shot the ball. A lot of fans thought it was funny.

He didn’t.

But what really got under his thin skin was the growing usage of the derisive nickname “Westbrick” instead of “Westbrook” by players, bloggers and mainstream media alike.

Anyone with a working knowledge of hoops lingo knows that a “brick” is a street name for a shot that is so off target it has no chance of going in the hoop. Since he is shooting only 43% from the field and an ugly 28% on three-pointers – which means he is missing 72 percent of his long-range shots — the nickname is certainly justified and serves its purpose as a general critique of his deteriorating game.

But Westbrook says its growing use is so unfair that he’s determined to do something about it.

“It’s shaming my name, my legacy for my kids,” he said. “It’s a name that means, not just to me but to my wife, my mom, my dad, the ones that kind of paved the way for me…. A lot of times, I let it slide. But now it’s time to put a stop to that and put it on notice.”

Just a couple of games later, he followed through when a court-side fan kept yelling “Westbrick” at him. Westbrook left the layup line, approached the fan in an aggressive manner, and asked “What did you say?”

The fan instantly realized his mistake. “I said Westbrook, Westbrook,” he replied. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Having made his point, Westbrook left the fan alone and went back to the layup line.

That’s one way to handle a problem like that: physically intimidate anyone you hear saying something you don’t like. Like Will Smith did to Chris Rock Sunday night at the Oscars.

Or he could just, you know, shoot better.

As it is, both Westbrook and the Lakers seem to realize that bringing him back to his hometown after he couldn’t make it work with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, or with James Harden in Houston, or with Bradley Beal in Washington was a giant mistake.

The only question left for the Lakers is not can they make the playoffs. That’s gone with the wind or soon will be.

No, the real question is how are they going to dump Westbrick while they still owe him $47 million for next season. It’s just a hunch, but All Ball suspects he is going to demand every cent no matter what they try to do with him and his bloated contract.

Stay tuned.

It’s going to be a fascinating summer in Laker Land. 

Contact: . Follow: @paulteetor. ER


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