BYU Cougars waited a long time to return to NCAA Tournament, but fall to UCLA 73-62 in first round

Cold shooting dooms BYU in first March Madness contest since 2015

BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) reaches for a rebound with UCLA forward Kenneth Nwuba (14) and BYU forward Caleb Lohner, second from left, and BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Sixth-seeded BYU waited a long time to get back to the NCAA Tournament, returning to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015, but ended up getting knocked out in the first round.

UCLA, an 11 seed, upset the Cougars 73-62, Saturday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, to continue to the second round. The Bruins will face Abilene Christian, which upset second-seeded Texas on Saturday as well, on Monday.

BYU senior center Matt Haarms, who made a homecoming of sorts in Indiana, was disappointed with the early knockout loss.

“It’s tough to go out like that,” Haarms said. “Credit to [UCLA], they have a great team, they outplayed us. They deserve to win this game.”

The Cougars’ loss also served as the first time BYU suffered consecutive losses during coach Mark Pope’s two-year tenure.

The Bruins made it to the first round game by pulling together an overtime, comeback win over Michigan State on Thursday. Having already started their NCAA Tournament journey, UCLA had already found its momentum already while BYU struggled coming off a long pause.

BYU forward Matt Haarms (3) shoots over UCLA forward Mac Etienne (12) during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

The Cougars went 10 days without a game, and started Saturday’s NCAA tourney matchup 0 of 6 from the field, also missing their first two free-throw attempts and with one turnover. UCLA, on the other hand, started aggressively and never let its foot off the gas.

BYU, once again, were unable to protect the ball as well as they should. The Cougars turned over the ball 10 times, which the Bruins converted into 11 points. UCLA committed two turnovers early into the second half, but then finished the game clean.

Both teams had nearly identical shooting percentages, but UCLA took advantage of its shots. The Bruins had five more 3-pointers made than BYU and eight more field goal attempts than the Cougars. UCLA also outscored BYU 13-7 in second-chance points.

“Clearly, we didn’t shoot the ball well from the 3-point line or the free-throw line,” Pope said. “Credit to UCLA for that, putting pressure on us. They had us on our heels for some substantial part of the first half. It happens sometimes, we’ve been able to overcome nights like that before this season, we just couldn’t overcome it tonight.”

Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez Jr. combined for 56 points to lead the Bruins. Juzang, in particular, proved to be a challenging obstacle for the Cougars.

The UCLA sophomore was questionable to play after sustaining a late-game injury to his right ankle — which had previously been injured — on Thursday. But Juzang came out with tenacity against BYU.

“Johnny was a handful tonight and we didn’t have answers for him,” Pope said. “UCLA can be so meticulous and demonstrative with their pace of play, so it makes it hard to claw back in. It’s just a game. It’s March — it happens.”

BYU was able to claw back in, going on a 10-0 run early in the second half to make it a four-point game, but the Bruins were able to respond and quickly and got back to a double-digit lead.

Haarms believes that was the Cougars’ best opportunity to take the game back.

“We just had to keep that momentum going and we were unable to,” Haarms said. “We were unable to tie the game up there or bring it around to our favor. It sucks that we weren’t able to do that, but at that point I feel like that’s the closest we got, early in the second half.”

The Cougars were led by its three seniors, who all started their collegiate careers at other programs. Alex Barcello led with a team-high 20 points, while Brandon Averette added 15 and Haarms finished with 11 points.

While the end to the season came earlier than BYU would have liked, Pope said he was grateful for the season his team had and the accomplishments they made, as well as also the chemistry they were able to build.

“I care about wins and losses, and I care about numbers and I care about all those things — and all those things are super important,” he said. “This team accomplished incredible things. ... But at the end of the day, all that stuff is fine, but they got something that’s way deeper and way more important than any of those things: they got each other.”

The Bruins, meanwhile, are moving on.