The drama that is part of March Madness continues for another weekend for the UCLA Bruins, while the USC Trojans fell just short of pulling off three comebacks of more than 10 points in five days to qualify for the Sweet 16.
The Sweet 16 begins March 23 with Oregon playing Michigan and Kansas playing Purdue in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City and Gonzaga playing West Virginia and Arizona playing Xavier in the West Regional in San Jose.
UCLA faces Kentucky in a rematch of a game that UCLA won in Kentucky last December March 24 in the South Regional in Memphis after North Carolina plays Butler. The East Regional features Baylor, which knocked USC out of the tournament, against South Carolina and Florida playing Wisconsin March 24.
In my bracket, I picked UCLA to win it all, which means the Bruins will have to beat Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas to reach the championship game.
That half of my bracket still looks good, with UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas all surviving. It’s the other half of the bracket that has killed me, with Duke and Notre Dame (my other Final Four picks) already being sent home.
The Bruins didn’t play their best games of the season in surviving the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but they played well enough to win.
Kent State gave the Bruins more than they wanted in the opener, battling back from a 16-2 start to keep the game close until the final minutes when the Bruins finally pulled away for a 97-80 win.
TJ Leaf, who sprained an ankle in the last game of the regular season, bounced back with 23 points to lead the Bruins. Thomas Welch, Leaf’s front court mate, added 16 and Lonzo Ball and Aaron Holiday each added 15 for the Bruins, whose defensive lapses allowed Kent State to hang around way too long.
UCLA tends to lose its defensive intensity when it plays lesser teams, a problem the Bruins won’t have to worry about the rest of the season. Any team the Bruins play the rest of the way will have their full attention.
In the second round, another Ohio school, Cincinnati, gave the Bruins a bad time early. The Bearcats led 33-30 before UCLA started the second half hot from outside. A 9-0 run gave the Bruins a lead they never relinquished.
Ball scored 19 points and added nine assists to lead the Bruins, much as he has done all year.
USC had a rougher path in the tournament, being forced to play in one of the play-in games March 15 against Providence. The Trojans, as they have done throughout the season, quickly fell behind the Friars, who eliminated the Trojans in last year’s tournament.
This year was different, though. After trailing by 15 at halftime and 17 early in the second half, USC rallied. Bennie Boatwright led the way with 24 points, point guard Jordan McLaughlin had 19 and forward Chemezie Metu had 18 for the Trojans. It was the 12th time USC had rallied from a 10-point deficit or more to win a game this season.
The Trojans made it 13 times March 17 when they rallied again to defeat SMU, 66-65. The Trojans led for all of 76 seconds in the game, but it was enough to knock off the Mustangs for the second time this season.
Elijah Stewart, the former L.A. City Player of the Year from Westchester High School, hit the winning basket with 37 seconds left. Stewart led the way with 22 points with Boatwright and Metu both scoring 14.
SMU lost only five games all season, two of those to the Trojans.
The Trojans, however, couldn’t make it 14 10-point comebacks March 19 against the third-seeded Baylor Bears, who prevailed, 82-78.
The Trojans trailed 14-3 early, but had climbed back into the game — and actually led during the second half — before Baylor blitzed them with an 8-0 run in 46 seconds near the four-minute mark to seal the victory.
Metu led the Trojans with 28 points and Stewart scored 12 points in his final game in cardinal and gold.
The Trojans finished with a 26-10 record, the most wins in school history.
Four of their five starters have eligibility remaining but Boatwright and Metu are believed to be considering a jump to the NBA next year.
The Trojans lost two starters last year who left to the NBA early.
Neither Julian Jacobs or Nikola Jovanovic were drafted. Jacobs is playing with the Los Angeles D Fenders in the NBA Development League. Joyanovic is playing for the Westchester Knicks in the Development League.
Both Metu and Boatwright have more skills than Jacobs and Joyanovic, so coach Andy Enfield may be looking to replace his two big men next year.
FATHER KNOWS BEST: LeVar Ball, the father of UCLA freshman sensation Lonzo Ball, has made quite a name for himself in the last few weeks.
Taking a page from the Richard Williams’ (the father of venus and Serena Williams) book of how to promote your children’s athletic careers, Ball has Charles Barkley, Steph Curry and maybe even Michael Jordan trading barbs with him.
Ball has been promoting Lonzo and his two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, since they were playing for Chino Hills High School last year, winning the state championship and being selected by several rating services as the top high school team in the country.
The elder Ball is not bashful, that is for certain. He is on record as saying that Lonzo is a better overall player than Curry and that the UCLA star is “Magic Johnson with a jump shot.”
He also said he himself could beat Jordan in a one-on-one game, although he didn’t specify if he could do that now or when they both were younger.
Ball played basketball at Canoga Park High School, West Los Angeles College, Washington State and Cal State Los Angeles.
He averaged 2.2 points a game the year he played at Washington State, so his claim that he could defeat Jordan is more Trumpian than anything else, but he has raised his sons to be skilled basketball players (both younger brothers are following Lonzo’s path to UCLA) and, who knows, he might get the $1 billion shoe contract he says he wants for his boys.
If nothing else, he is entertaining and as long as his sons back up their father’s words, people will keep listening.
When asked about his father, Lonzo shrugged. “That’s just dad. He’s always been like that.”
WINDWARD WINS: The Windward High School girls basketball team has advanced to the state championship game March 24 in Sacramento. The Wildcats will play Sacramento McClatchy in the Division I championship game at 6 p.m. in the Golden 1 Center.
They advanced to the finals by defeating Ventura, 61-43, in the South Regional Final March 18 at the Pyramid in Long Beach.
Sophomore guard Charisma Osborne led the way for the Wildcats with 35 points while holding Ventura’s Savannah Page to only 10 points.
Windward is 29-4 on the season.
MAN U IS COMING: For the soccer fans out there, England’s famed squad Manchester United will play an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Galaxy July 15 at StubHub Center in Carson.
I’m not sure why the game is at StubHub. The last time Man U played in Southern California was in 2014 and more than 86,000 packed the Rose Bowl for an exhibition against the Galaxy.
Man U routed the Galaxy 7-0 that day.
Manchester fielded a starting lineup with six players who played in the 2014 World Cup. It made nine substitutes to start the second half, including two more World Cup players.
The Galaxy’s lone 2014 World Cup player, defender Omar Gonzalez, did not play because of an injury. Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, who played for the U.S. in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, entered the 90-minute game in the 61st minute.
I wonder how many regulars Man U will bring this time?
Ticket information is available at LAGalaxy.com/ManchesterUnited.