Drew Timme, Mark Few, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs dug themselves a significant hole on Thursday in a Sweet 16 matchup against the UCLA Bruins in Las Vegas. By halftime, Gonzaga was trailing by 13 points and seemingly on the ropes after a first half in which the Bulldogs struggled mightily to find defensive stops. Then, Timme and company executed almost flawlessly for the vast majority of the second half to build what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, only to implode in the final minutes. To cap off what was an instant classic, the Bulldogs ultimately pulled it out of the fire on a deep three-pointer by Julian Strawther in the final seconds, and Gonzaga escaped with a 79-76 win and a trip to the Elite Eight.
Early in the game, it was the Timme show for the Bulldogs. The perennial All-American scored 15 of the first 19 points for Gonzaga, showcasing his game both inside and outside.
On the other end, however, UCLA took it to Gonzaga early and often in the first half. The Bruins scored 29 points in the first ten minutes of action, making 60 percent of their shots with only one turnover. By the middle of the half, UCLA used an 11-2 run to take a double-digit lead and apparent control of the game flow.
While both teams were generating quality looks, UCLA had the edge in the possession battle by virtue of ball security. The Bruins forced seven turnovers in fewer than 15 minutes and, even with Gonzaga eventually cutting the margin to two, UCLA had a counterpunch before halftime. That came in the form of a 15-4 run to close the half, and Mick Cronin’s team led 46-33 at the break.
As he did in the first half, Timme came out of the locker room strong for Gonzaga, keying an 8-0 run in the early going. That cut the deficit to 54-50, and Timme had 29 points with 14 minutes remaining.
Gonzaga held UCLA scoreless for more than six straight minutes and, on the other end, the Bulldogs imposed their will. That led to the first lead change in a long time as Gonzaga’s overall run reached 20-3 to give the Bulldogs a ten-point lead.
After the torrid pace of the first half, UCLA’s offensive power outage was jarring to see, as the Bruins didn’t make a field goal for more than 11 minutes, at one point missing 11 consecutive shots. However, there was still plenty of drama left to unfold, in part due to the brilliance of Jaime Jaquez, who finished the game with 29 points and 11 rebounds.
With the help of a miss on the front end of a one-and-one from Gonzaga, UCLA began to chip away, with Jaquez converting a three-point play with 1:14 to go to bring the Bruins back within six. Moments later, Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith uncorked an errant pass in the backcourt for a turnover, and the wheels began to come off for the Bulldogs. Jaquez generated another three-point play with 45 seconds remaining, bringing UCLA within three and, after Gonzaga split a pair of free throws, it was Jaquez again taking the ball to the basket to trim the deficit to 75-73 with 33 seconds remaining.
Timme was fouled with 25 seconds left and, when he missed both to continue Gonzaga’s ill-timed swoon, the door was open for UCLA. Freshman guard Amari Bailey stepped through it with the biggest shot of his career, burying a three-pointer to give UCLA the lead with 12.2 seconds remaining.
Though it was not the way Gonzaga drew things up, the Bulldogs did have a chance at redemption, and Julian Strawther was up to the challenge. He uncorked a (very) deep triple on a play very similar to one executed by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins to win a national title under Jay Wright, and Strawther became a hero in an instant.
When UCLA wasn’t able to convert on the other end after a Zags steal, free throws, and a last second heave bounced off the rim for the Bruins, Gonzaga narrowly emerged with the victory in what was certainly a game not for the faint of heart. It would be fair to point to Gonzaga’s inability to slam the door, including five missed free throws and poor defense in the final two minutes, but it was also a tremendous effort from the Bulldogs after halftime to come back against a very strong opponent. Gonzaga secured 14 offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes, overwhelming UCLA with second-chance opportunities, and Timme was individually brilliant.
The veteran center became the first player in NCAA Tournament history to score at least 20 points in ten different games, and Timme finished the evening with 36 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists as the fulcrum of Gonzaga’s offense. It was a fitting moment for a tremendous collegiate force, and Timme was backed up by a double-double from Strawther that was punctuated by the biggest shot of the evening.
On UCLA’s side, the Bruins will undoubtedly be kicking themselves for the missed opportunities, especially after nearly pulling off a highly improbable comeback in the closing stretch. For Gonzaga, defensive questions persist and, in fewer than 48 hours, the Bulldogs will face a difficult challenge with a matchup against red-hot UConn at T-Mobile Arena. Still, this is a game that Gonzaga has sometimes figured out how to lose in recent years, and Mark Few’s team remains alive and just one game away from the Final Four.