Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

Last-second loss to USC another ‘what if’ moment

- By Tarek Fattal tfattal@scng.com @tarek_fattal on Twitter

UCLA coach Mick Cronin doesn’t believe in excuses. But there’s a difference between a good excuse and a bad one.

Following UCLA’s heartbreak­ing 64-63 loss to USC at the buzzer Saturday afternoon that snapped an 18-game winning streak at Pauley Pavilion, Cronin lent some perspectiv­e that might have you look at the Bruins’ Pac-12 championsh­ip-contending season differentl­y.

“This game could have been played with a guy playing pro (Daishen Nix), Chris Smith, Jalen Hill and (Johnny) Juzang. That’s four starters,” Cronin said. “We played without them (today), never trailed until the the end of the game.”

Juzang, the team’s leading scorer at 14.2 points per game, was a late scratch due to an ankle injury from practice Friday. He warmed up and was dressed but didn’t play.

Freshmen Mac Etienne made his first career start Saturday, playing 20 minutes. He arrived in Westwood less than nine weeks ago. Fellow freshman Jaylen Clark played 18 minutes and had to defend 7-foot center Evan Mobley on many possession­s. Tyger Campbell scored nine points in 38 minutes. Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 12, and also played 38 minutes.

UCLA (17-8, 13-6 Pac-12) was 1.4 seconds away from being all smiles heading into today with the anticipati­on to watch Oregon State and Oregon battle at 5 p.m. An Oregon State victory would have given the Bruins the Pac-12 regular-season title.

Instead, USC redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy’s 3-pointer from the corner fell through the net with 1.4 seconds left, the only lead of the game for the Trojans (216, 15-5).

Now, UCLA has lost three straight heading into the Pac-12 Tournament next week in Las Vegas.

“Losing three in a row is always hard, no matter what sport,” Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “But we have to have a short-term memory and give it everything we got heading into the tournament, try and win a championsh­ip.”

Cronin’s coaching job to keep the program winning despite the injuries is one that should be recognized.

His next task, to keep the team’s fighting spirit up, might be the biggest challenge this season, especially after a loss to a rival at home in the final second, similar to how it went down last year when Jonah Mathews’ 3-pointer downed the Bruins at the Galen Center in the regular-season finale.

“We’re playing as well as we can play,” Cronin said. “We just played three really good teams, we played really well. That’s my opinion. ... My job now is to make sure they don’t quit. We’re overachiev­ing. My fear is they run out of gas.”

UCLA has been on both ends of final-second moments.

Clark made a free throw with 1.4 seconds left two weeks ago against Arizona State for a Bruin victory. That day, it was also UCLA’s only lead of the game.

Rewind to Jan. 23. The Bruins were clinging to a lead that vanished with just 0.8 seconds left when Stanford’s Oscar da Silva scored off an inbounds pass underneath the basket they were defending.

The Bruins could have had their own buzzer-beater moment Saturday. After Eaddy’s shot with 1.4 seconds left, the Bruins had a timeout, which Cronin hollered for but never got.

“Any veteran referee, when that ball goes in, looks over his shoulder at the coach. I was ignored,” said Cronin. “I’ll never forget about it, but from my experience, I’ll get reprimande­d. I’m sure (the official’s) excuse will be that he couldn’t hear me, but like I said, a veteran official looks over his shoulder.”

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