All Ball Sports: Bruins, Trojans could make hoops history

“This Jaquez kid is my favorite player in the whole tournament,” Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said of UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez, after the 6-foot-6 forward helped UCLA advance to the Sweet 16. Photo by Steve Cheng/MediaWiki.org.

by Paul Teetor 

April 3, 2021.

Circle the date on your calendar because that’s when history could – repeat, could – be made if USC and UCLA each win two more games in the NCAA Tournament. They would then play in a national semifinal game, with the winner earning a spot in the NCAA Championship game on April 5.

It sounds crazy, since neither team managed to even win the PAC-12 this year, losing out to Oregon in the last week of the regular season after the two local teams spent the entire season in either first or second place.

And speaking of Oregon, guess who’s next up for USC in its sweet sixteen game next weekend. That’s right: Oregon.

“Congrats to Oregon,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said moments after his team absolutely destroyed  third-seeded Kansas 85-51 Monday night to put the Trojans in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2007. “They were 14-4 in the league, and we were 15-5. The good news is that at least one of us is going to make the Elite Eight and that’s good for the league.”

Indeed, the unexpected strength of the PAC-12 in the first two rounds is the story of the NCAA Tournament so far. Oregon, Oregon State, the surprise winner of the PAC-12 Tournament, and the Bruins and Trojans all advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Only Colorado lost in the second round, giving the league an overall mark of 9-1 in the first two rounds. 

So just how crazy is the prospect of the Bruins and Trojans meeting in a national semifinal?

Not that crazy at all after all the drama, heroics and triumphs of a five-day weekend that will never be forgotten in local hoops circles.

It started Thursday night when UCLA was forced to play a qualifying game against Michigan State – that’s what it really is, even though the NCAA insists on calling it a “First Four” game, with the winner advancing to the field of 64 teams.

The two teams were mirror images of each other – tough, hard-nosed and well coached – but the Bruins hit a couple of shots late in regulation and then dominated the Spartans in overtime to advance to the real tournament as an 11th seed. Once there, they seized the opportunity by stifling 6th seeded BYU’s high-octane offense Saturday afternoon. By the end of that game things were happening that made the Bruins feel like a team of destiny.

Consider this list of Bruins players: Willie Naulls, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Reggie Miller and… Johnny Juzang.

Wait, what? Who?

Those are the only UCLA Bruins to average 25 points in their first two March Madness games.

Yep, those were the undeniable facts after UCLA’s first two wins in the NCAA Tournament: Juzang, the 6-foot-6, smooth-shooting sophomore transfer from Kentucky who played his prep ball at Harvard-Westlake, joined the three Bruin greats in scoring the most points in their first two March Madness games.

And you may as well throw Jaime Jaquez in there too, as the sophomore forward was right behind Juzang in leading the Bruins into the sweet sixteen. In fact, Jaquez, a tough 6-foot-6 forward who leads the Bruins in rebounding and is second in scoring behind Juzang, received the ultimate compliment Monday afternoon after the Bruins destroyed Abilene Christian 67-47 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

“This Jaquez kid is my favorite player in the whole tournament,” Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said. “I never heard of him until Thursday night. Now I think he’s a pro prospect.”

Indeed, both Juzang and Jacquez were being seen in a new light as NBA prospects after their national exposure over the long weekend.

That put them in the elite company of the Mobley brothers, the two USC stars. Freshman Evan Mobley, the 6-foot-11 younger brother, has been projected as a top-3 pick in next June’s draft all along. But the revelation over the weekend was his older brother Isiah Mobley, also 6-foot-11 but less athletic and not projected as a draft prospect this year. By the time SC had beaten Drake in the first round and destroyed Kansas in the second, the sophomore star was being seen differently. He drilled four 3-pointers in the first half against Kansas and combined with his brother, the PAC-12 defensive player of the year, to put up a defensive wall that Kansas never could penetrate. The 34-point deficit was the worst NCAA Tournament loss traditional powerhouse Kansas ever suffered, double its previous deficit from 1940.

Now USC will take on Oregon, and UCLA will face down second-seeded Alabama next weekend. If they each win those games, there will be only one more hurdle between the two arch-rivals and a Final Four game for a spot in the national championship game – and for LA bragging rights.

March Madness indeed.

LeBron Goes Down on questionable play

An NBA season is so long, so stressful and so exhausting that there are always going to be low points, inflection points and turning points.

The Lakers 99-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Saturday afternoon looks like all three of those for one reason and one reason only: LeBron James suffered one of the few serious injuries of his long and durable 18-year career.

The scream was the tell that this was no ordinary sprained ankle.

When LeBron – stoic, indomitable, bionic LeBron – is on the ground screaming in pain you know his high ankle sprain is serious. For a guy who hates to show weakness of any kind, it was an undisguised display of just how human we often forget he really is. He’s just like you and me, only bigger, stronger, more talented, more dedicated, more motivated and harder working. Richer and smarter too.

But he’s still human.

Somehow the injury was even more ominous because it happened in an empty Staples Center, where his howls of agony echoed throughout the building and were picked up loud and clear by the TV microphones. They were so loud that not even the fake fan noise being pumped into Staples could hide the raw agony in his voice. Ligaments stretched beyond their normal limits are like teeth with an exposed nerve: painful beyond ordinary human imagination.

When was the last time anyone heard LeBron screaming in pain? Certainly not when he had his hamstring injury during his first Lakers season three years ago. That time he just headed to the locker room, had it treated, and sat out for the next 17 games. But the Lakers weren’t going anywhere that year anyway, so the impact was far less consequential than this time.

This time he tried to adopt that same Superman approach, getting his ankles re-taped and heading right back into the game – where he immediately drained a 3-pointer. But he limped around for 40 seconds more and quickly had to face reality: he was done for today, tomorrow and well into the foreseeable future. As he limped off to the locker room he angrily slammed a chair to the floor and shook his head in disgust.                                    

Right after the game he sent out a tweet that reflected his nothing-can-stop-me-for-long philosophy: “Nothing angers and saddens me more than not being available to and for my teammates,” he said. “I’m hurt inside and out right now. The road back from recovery begins now. Back soon like I never left.”

Despite his optimistic tweet, this injury changes everything for the defending NBA champs.

Forget the richly-deserved and overdue MVP trophy LeBron was heading for this season. That’s gone now.

Forget first, second, third or even fourth place in the highly competitive Western Conference. Those are gone now too.

A top-8 finish and the playoffs are still possible, but only if the Lakers make some aggressive moves before Thursday’s trade deadline. And really, who’s available out there that could possibly fill the role LeBron plays for the team?

No one.  

The team’s immediate diagnosis for their leader: out indefinitely.

The brutal reality: he’ll be out of action at least a month, possibly two. High ankle sprains are very serious and have been known to linger for so long that a player can return in-season and never quite regain their prior level of play until the next season after a summer of rehab.

For a guy who relies on his otherworldly athleticism first and his ever-more-elite skill level second, that could be especially problematic.

Two months would take the Lakers to the start of the playoffs before he returns.

The Lakers were already stumbling along without their other top-5 player, Anthony Davis. They were treading water – win one, lose two, win two, lose one – with LeBron dragging the team along on his broad back. When hot-and-cold, inconsistent role player Kyle Kuzma is your second-best player, you’re never going to get on much of a winning streak. But at least they were holding the fort until the cavalry, in the form of a healthy AD, could return from his own very serious ankle/calf injury that put him out of play three weeks ago. So far, the Lakers have not announced a time-table or even a target date for AD’s return. Which means his timetable is the same as LeBron’s: out indefinitely. 

This is the nightmare scenario for the Lakers: their two super-stars out with serious injuries while the supporting cast of over-the-hill veterans like Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris and Jared Dudley tries to carry on without them for the indefinite future.

So how did we get here?         

Well, AD’s injury was in a certain sense self-induced. In an effort to show he is not the brittle, injury prone player his nine-year career has shown him to be, he kept playing even when he knew his ankle/calf injury could easily worsen into a complete rupture of his Achilles tendon if he wasn’t careful.

Sure enough, he ended up limping off the court in a game against the Warriors three weeks ago and hasn’t come close to playing again since then. No rupture of the Achilles, the team said, but now he would have to rest the leg and ankle for as long as it takes to come back 100 percent healthy.

LeBron’s injury, however, was not self-induced. Indeed, it was the result of a borderline dirty play. It started with a loose ball that LeBron was in a clear position to scoop up. But Solomon Hill, a 30-year-old NBA journeyman already on his fifth team, and a former Fairfax High School star, made the kind of hey-coach-look-at-my-extra-hustle play that some scrubs feel is necessary to keep their place on their latest team.

Hill, who was blocked off from the ball by LeBron’s large body, dove for the ball anyway and crashed into LeBron’s legs and knocked him over.

The collision caused LeBron’s right ankle to roll over at a severe angle, and the rest is Lakers’ history in the making.

LeBron’s teammates were quick to call out Hill for his reckless play.

“He had to go through his leg to get the ball, man,” center Montrezl Harrell said after the game. “He was turned sideways. The ball was behind him. I mean, you’re jumping at an angle, going across this way. I mean, I don’t know how you feel that’s a loose ball.”                        

Hill knew his crazy try for a ball he had no chance of getting was causing anger among Lakers players and fans. He tweeted after the game that he “would never take a player out purposely” and added he was praying for LeBron’s speedy recovery.     

As is all of Lakers Nation.

Sea Hawks up, Mustangs down 

Redondo opened its pandemic-shortened football season Friday night with a nail-biting 10-7 win over Peninsula that showed off the toughness and grit of Coach Matt Ballard’s Sea Hawks.

With less than two minutes left Peninsula was marching towards a potential game winning touchdown when Redondo senior linebacker Preston Arenbart stepped into the path of a pass thrown by Peninsula QB Joe Rhodes to preserve the three-point lead and the win.

It was a low-scoring defensive struggle all the way.

Redondo broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter when Darryl West ran four yards for a TD. On the opening possession of the third quarter they scored again when Robert Baker kicked a 32-yard field goal to build the Sea Hawk lead up to 10-0. Peninsula did not score until the fourth quarter, when Rhodes completed two consecutive passes to get to the 1-yard line. Brett MacGowan ran it in from there to pull within 10-7.

That set the stage for Arenbart’s dramatic, game-saving interception.

Mira Costa, meanwhile, dropped to 0-2 on the season with another brutal, last-second loss following last week’s 38-35 last-second loss to St. Francis. This time the Mustangs were beaten 35-28 by Culver City after trailing 21-7 and roaring back to tie it at 28-28. Quarterback Casey Pavlick, nicely filling the big shoes of the departed Slingin’ Sam Whitney, had another monster game and piled up 317 of the Mustang’s total of 333 yards.

We’ll do the math for you: the Mustangs gained only 16 yards on the ground and threw the ball on nearly every play.

That pass-first attack worked great – except that on the other side of the field Culver City had a QB even better and more experienced than Pavlick, who ran the Costa Junior Varsity last season. 

Culver City’s Zevi Eckhaus passed for more than 4,450 yards and an astounding 59 touchdowns last season, setting all kinds of school records just as Whitney was doing the same for Costa. But this season Whitney is attending a Connecticut prep school and Eckhaus is still throwing the ball for Culver City, which has moved into the Bay League, along with Santa Monica. Leuzinger and Lawndale left the Bay League.

Friday night Eckhaus passed for five touchdowns, including the game winner to Legend Waring (Yep, that’s his real name) with only 40 seconds left. 

The Mustangs will travel to Palos Verdes for an afternoon game Friday, March 26, starting at 3 p.m.

Redondo will take on Culver City. 

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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