All Ball Sports: Bruins brewing; Help Me Rondo; Mustangs, Sea Hawks down
by Paul Teetor
From the First Four to the Final Four.
That was the highway to heaven that UCLA traveled on its five-game March Madness journey, and the trip ain’t over yet.
The Bruins are moving on to Saturday’s national NCAA semifinals after a pulsating, heart-stopping finish to their 51-49 Elite Eight victory over top-seeded Michigan Tuesday night.
UCLA fans all over the Beach Cities were standing and shouting at their TV for most of the second half as the Bruins shook off a terrible start, put the defensive clamps on the Wolverines and actually shut them out for the last five minutes to eke out the narrowest of wins in an old-school defensive struggle. Trailing by just two points, top-seeded Michigan had five chances to hit a game-tying or game-winning shot in the last 90 seconds, and the 11th-seeded Bruins forced them to miss all five.
It was a game made to order for UCLA Coach Mick Cronin, who has always been a defense-first coach and has always had highly disciplined, tough-minded teams. His players know the reality: if you don’t play defense like a JV football linebacker trying to make the varsity, you won’t play at all.
It was a theme that Cronin, in only his second year at Westwood after 13 years as the coach at Cincinnati, reiterated moments after the game.
“Nobody picked us, nobody believed in us,” Cronin said. “We knew we had to keep defending and we’d have a chance to win.”
Then he gave a shout-out to his father Hep, a long-time high school coach in Cincinnati who got him started in hoops and has been to every Bruin game during this incredible tournament run.
“Love you Dad,” he said.
As long as Cronin was spreading the love around, he should send a little love Johnny Juzang’s way. The sophomore transfer from Kentucky who played his high-school ball at Harvard-Westlake carried the Bruins in the first half when no one else could buy a bucket. Indeed, the 6-foot-6 baller scored 18 of the Bruins’ 24 first-half points on a variety of long-range bombs, power drives and pull-up jumpers when Michigan’s tall front line began to focus on stopping him from getting all the way to the hoop.
For those first 20 minutes he was Johnny Be Good, a hoops hero who could shoot the ball like he was ringing a bell.
But early in the second half he twisted his right ankle – yep, the same one he badly sprained earlier this year – and while he was out the Wolverine had a 9-0 run to pull within a point.
From that point on the lead went back and forth as the players fought through the tension in the air and their taut nerves to pull it out and continue their against-all-odds magic carpet ride.
In doing so, they joined Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 as the only teams ever to advance all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. For those not versed in NCAA double-speak, First Four refers to the four teams the NCAA deems not quite worthy to make the field of 64 teams that start the tournament. So the “First Four” are paired off against each other, and the two winners then advance to play in the real tournament.
Adding a dose of spice to this unbelievable journey is the reality that UCLA nearly lost its First Four game to a tough Michigan State team that led until the final seconds. But the Bruins forced a 5-minute overtime and then dominated the extra session to win the game and advance to a real first round game.
That’s how close they came to being out before the tournament even began.
Since then it’s been one thrilling moment after another in the four tournament games for a team that lost its last four games in the regular season. That’s why they lost the PAC-12 title to Oregon after leading for most of the season, and that’s why they barely made the First Four play-in game.
During the tournament each starting player carved out their role and firmly established their identity, something every winning team needs. Tyger Campbell is their floor general, a pint-sized penetrator who can find the open shooter and score under duress. Juzang became the designated go-to guy when they absolutely had to have a bucket. Jaime Jaquez, who started the season as their leading scorer, became more of a rebounder-defender, their do-it-all glue guy. Jules Bernard was their second-best ball handler behind Campbell and a streaky wing scorer, while bulky Cody Riley became their workhorse on the boards and a scoring beast in the low post when they couldn’t hit from the perimeter.
Now the Bruins move on to play the top overall seed, Gonzaga, Saturday afternoon.
Gonzaga got there by humiliating USC so badly – 85-66 – Tuesday afternoon that Coach Andy Enfield may want to dial back all his talk about how he’s now built a sustainable program in his eight years as Trojan Coach.
The success of this Trojans team was built on the backs of the two Mobley brothers, freshman sensation Evan and ever-improving sophomore Isaiah. It was assumed all along that 7-footer Evan was a one-and-done player, a no-dispute top-3 pick in the NBA draft. But now it looks like the 6-foot-10 big brother may be a two-and-done player after a great tournament run by a guy who looked lost in his little brother’s shadow most of the year but emerged just in time for Groundhog Day.
And what Enfield never mentions and the mainstream media rarely mentions is that the Mobleys came to USC only because their father was hired as a USC assistant coach in 2018, a year before Isaiah matriculated and two years before Evan showed up. Since Mobley had never coached above the AAU level, cynics might suggest that a desperate Enfield resorted to one of the oldest recruiting tricks in the book to secure the two high-school All Americans.
And the other three starters this year were all transfer students who probably won’t be back. If both Mobleys leave as is likely now, Enfield will essentially be starting from scratch next season, while Cronin will probably have all five starters back even if they go on to win the NCAA championship.
Help Me, Rondo
The Lakers and the Clippers had the same urgent need as Thursday’s NBA trade deadline approached: a veteran point guard to organize their offense and take some play-making pressure off LeBron for the Lakers or off Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for the Paper Clips.
They even had the same target: Kyle Lowry, the 35-year-old former All-Star the Toronto Raptors were dangling around the league. A tough, hard-nosed player who defends, scores and always over-achieves, Lowry would have been perfect for either LA team.
But the price, in both cases, turned out to be too high. The Lakers would have had to give up Talan Horton Tucker, the 20-year-old second-year player profiled by All Ball 3 months ago as a future All-Star. Since he is the only player the Lakers have who fits the profile of a young prospect who could be a starter or even an All-Star someday, they ultimately decided to pass on Lowry and chose to make no other deals as the trade deadline came and went.
The Clippers had a different problem: they didn’t have any young talent coveted by other teams around the league. The last player they had that fit that profile, Shia Gilgeous Alexander, was traded to the OKC Thunder as part of the treasure trove of players and assets they were forced to give up to obtain George after Kawhi said he would not sign with them unless they obtained George first. SGA, as he is already known far and wide, is now the Thunder’s best player, averaging over 20 points and 10 assists per game. He is a lock to make an All-Star team in the near future. Truth is, the Clippers would have been better off keeping SGA and the five first round picks they sent to the Thunder for George. But owner Steve Ballmer wanted to make an immediate move for a title as the team looks ahead to moving to its new stadium in Inglewood in the next few years.
When it all blew up in the Florida playoff bubble last season, Coach Doc Rivers took the fall and was fired – and landed on his feet in Philadelphia a week later as the new head coach there. But Ballmer then made a smart move in promoting Ty Lue from assistant coach to head coach, and this time Lue and the front office led by Lawrence Frank proved savvier than in the past.
Once they determined they couldn’t get Lowry for the spare parts they were offering, they went out and got the next best option: Rajon Rondo, who played this very lead guard role last year for the Lakers as they won their title.
Everyone in the NBA from the Staples Center janitor to the Clippers general manager knew after the playoff meltdown that they desperately needed a point guard who is also a great passer and great leader. The starter last year, Patrick Beverly is a great defender but is not starter-quality and is not a great passer or scorer.
Why they didn’t make this move last off-season when Rondo was an unrestricted free agent was one of the great mysteries of the 71 days between the end of pandemic re-start last year and the start of this season. Clipper’s “sources” hinted that Rondo was asking for too much money, but that made no sense with a multi-billionaire like Ballmer calling the shots
Instead, Rondo signed a 2-year, $15 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks to back up emerging star Trae Young, the pint-sized gunner who can shoot from anywhere inside half-court and is a great passer too. Unfortunately for Young and the Hawks, he is a terrible defender and will always be known as the guy the Hawks drafted instead of Luka Doncic, who is already a no-dispute superstar in just his third season.
But Rondo’s role with the Hawks shrank to almost nothing as Young dominated the ball most of the game while racking up 30 points and 10 assists a game.
So the Hawks were receptive when the Clippers offered home-town boy Lou Williams, a born scorer at 6-foot-1 who can still get buckets despite being 35, and two second-round draft picks and cash.
While Rondo will organize their offense, there is a more subtle reason this is a brilliant move for the Clips: he has the alpha-dog personality and the leadership skills that both Leonard and George so conspicuously lack. They are both great players offensively and defensively, but Kawhi’s personality is so laid-back as to be invisible, and George is so neurotic that after his melt-down in the playoffs he’s more focused on redeeming his reputation than in trying to motivate and lead the younger players on the roster.
Now that job will fall to Rondo, who welcomes it.
Mustangs, Sea Hawks both fall in football
There’s a new bully in Bay League Football, and its name is Culver City, which just joined the league this season.
There’s also an old bully in Bay League football, and its name is Palos Verdes.
Together, the new and old bullies made it a forgettable weekend for the local teams, as Culver City crushed Redondo 55-12 and PV rolled over Mira Costa 40-21.
There’s not much to say about Redondo, whose record fell to 1-1 with the loss. Coach Matt Ballard’s team played hard and tough even when they fell so far behind that they had no chance at winning. The problem was that Culver City’s senior quarterback, record-setting Zevi Eckhaus, had yet another great game. He threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes. He even ran for a TD, proving he is not a one-trick pony.
Redondo’s one-sided loss did accomplish one thing: it put last week’s 35-28 last-second loss by Mira Costa to Culver City in perspective. Given that Culver City is rampaging through the Bay League like Godzilla against Kong, this Redondo loss made Costa’s near miss look much better.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, their record fell to 0-3 on the season as they couldn’t hang with PV Friday afternoon even after grabbing an early 14-7 lead behind the prolific arm of QB Casey Pavlick. Coming into the game PV had won 9 of the last 10 meetings between the two long-time rivals as they consistently dominated the Bay League.
Now it’s 10 of 11.
The Mustangs initially looked like they would end the PV streak behind the lively arm of Pavlick and the sticky hands of wide receiver Thomas Southey. They scored on their first two possessions with TD passes of 28 yards and 4 yards to take a 7-point lead into the second quarter.
PV turned it around by intercepting Pavlick three times and turning each interception into a TD. Costa made a late push with yet another Pavlick-to-Southey TD that trimmed the PV lead to 27-21, but the Mustangs never scored again.
Mira Costa will try for its first win Friday when they travel to Santa Monica. Redondo will host PV Friday afternoon.
Contact: email@example.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER
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