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No. 20 Gonzaga struggles in closing minutes, again, in loss to UCLA

This was a re-run Gonzaga would have preferred not seeing again.

The 20th-ranked Zags lost for the third time this season, and all three have played out much like Saturday’s 71-66 setback to UCLA, which was viewed by a packed house of 6,000 inside the McCarthey Athletic Center.

The game was there for the taking in the closing minutes but Gonzaga couldn’t close the deal, repeating similar endings against Arizona last Saturday and Texas A&M in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Zags (6-3) have dropped two of their last three home games and will probably fall out of the rankings when the polls are released Monday. UCLA, which lost twice to Gonzaga last season, improved to 7-3 with its fourth straight win.

“There we were with a chance with a couple minutes to go,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “They made plays and we didn’t. That’s a little bit of a theme that’s happened to us in our three losses.”

Another theme: Gonzaga is struggling mightily without center Przemek Karnowski, who missed his fourth straight game with a back injury. He doesn’t appear to be close to returning.

“He’s in too much pain to even sit on the bench,” Few said. “It hasn’t gotten any better, it’s gotten worse. We’re literally trying everything.”

Without Karnowski, the Zags were outscored in the paint 36-32 – Bruins forward Tony Parker was 8 of 9 from the field and scored 16 points – and gave up 11 offensive rebounds that UCLA converted into 12 points.

But Gonzaga’s biggest issue remains taking care of the ball. The Zags had 12 turnovers, including one by Josh Perkins with roughly 1 minute remaining. UCLA outscored GU 18-9 in points off turnovers.

The Zags had pretty good looks most of the game, but they made just 6 of 26 3-pointers and shot 41 percent overall. UCLA sagged off some Zags’ guards but they rarely made the Bruins pay.

“At times we rushed things on offense because we were so aggressive and we want to be aggressive,” said guard Eric McClellan, who had 14 points. “We see one open shot, even if it’s early in the clock, that’s something we have to clean up and maybe get multiple actions. It’s just a matter of shots falling. They’ll fall. We can live with that.”

After eight lead changes in the second half, UCLA went on top for good with a 9-0 spurt while Gonzaga was unable to connect on four quality looks at the offensive end. Isaac Hamilton, who led UCLA with 20 points, started it with a 3-pointer and Bryce Alford’s 16-foot jumper gave UCLA a 56-48 lead with 7:40 remaining.

Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointer snapped a 4-minute dry spell and pulled the Zags within five. Gonzaga trailed by one on three occasions in the final 3:50 but each time the Bruins has an answer.

Thomas Welsh followed his own miss to give UCLA a three-point lead with 1:05 remaining. Perkins slipped while driving into the lane and Hamilton capitalized with a layup.

Perkins made two free throws with 47.4 seconds left to cut UCLA’s lead to 69-66. Alford hit a tough, contested 3-pointer, but officials reviewed the play and determined it came after the shot clock expired.

Kyle Dranginis misfired on a potential tying 3-pointer and Jonah Bolden sealed the Bruins’ victory with two free throws.

“We made some strides, but we still came up short,” said Wiltjer, who led Gonzaga with 20 points. “They had us on ropes and we fought back. There were just 3 to 5 plays where didn’t get stops we needed or we forced it or turned it over.”

Domantas Sabonis added 18 points and eight rebounds. Perkins added 10 points.

Both teams were white-hot from the field early, but the defenses settled in and drove the shooting percentages down. Gonzaga closed the first half on an 8-2 run to take a 32-30 at the break. Wiltjer made three of GU’s four 3-pointers and scored 13 points in the half.

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