UCLA had seven days to swallow their Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Oregon State. For a good portion of UCLA’s First Four contest against a physical Michigan State team, the Bruins seemed to be stuck on that last game, going down by as much as 14 points to the Spartans.
Mick Cronin’s team got their act together, shook off any sluggish rust that may have carried over from that Oregon State defeat to beat Michigan State in a stunning 86-80 overtime win.
“So the players really needed this,” Cronin said. “So I’m really, really happy for the guys. They’ve been battling hard and really concerned with their confidence being shook after what we’ve gone through in the last few weeks. Pac-12 obviously didn’t help us, making us go to Oregon in our last week, put us on a three-game road trip. Lost Johnny for the USC game. And then Oregon State got on a roll, and we missed free throws and lost that one. So our confidence was definitely shaken.”
Oregon State would move on from that victory against the Bruins to become Pac-12 Tournament champs. UCLA, fourth in the Pac-12 Conference, had to hope they would get some love to play in the NCAA Tournament. Not quite there, UCLA was a bubble team, so they had to take the luck of the draw and earn their keep into the tournament by playing a rugged Michigan State team.
“We were trying, as a coaching staff, make sure we pumped them up as much as we could getting ready for tonight,” Cronin said. “But Michigan State came out playing well. Their offensive execution in the first half was as good as I’ve seen them. Their shooting, their passing. They pretty much got whatever they wanted against us.”
While the win was a celebratory one for the Bruins as they prepare for their NCAA Tournament first-round game against BYU, the First Four game against the Spartans took on a special meaning for Cronin. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cronin had not seen his dad, Harold Cronin, in more than a year. Thursday night, the elder Cronin was in the stands cheering on his son’s Bruins.
Of course, for Mick Cronin, the night represented a two-fold blessing in that his team earned their way into the NCAA Tournament and he had the opportunity to have an impromptu family reunion by seeing his pops.
“It’s good to see him. He’s getting old,” Cronin said. “I’m teasing — I talk to him every day. I wake up and as I’m heading down Sepulveda I call him, ask him how the weather is in Cincinnati. I explain to him the sun is coming over the Santa Monica Mountains. I put my sunglasses on. I mess with him every day. I have not seen my dad since our Arizona State win last year at the end of February. COVID hit, he canceled his flight to Vegas.
“Trying to stay safe, not traveling on airplanes. So talking to somebody every day. It’s weird to see him,” Cronin added. “You’ve got to remember, this guy, last year — I know he lives in Cincinnati, but he’s flying out every month spending a week with me. So it was great. Now I get to see him again.”
While the Conin family get-together provided a great Kodak moment, UCLA had no business winning this game against Michigan State. The Bruins came out in the first half with little energy as the Spartans kind of bullied UCLA throughout the first 20 minutes of the game, walking into the locker room at halftime with a comfortable 44-33 lead.
Cronin and the Bruins clawed their way back into the game and respectability immediately after intermission. The play of UCLA was night and day when it came to the two halves. As the Spartans backpedaled, the Bruins stepped on the gas with pressure, pressure, and more press. The Spartans retreated. Yet with 1:46 left in the game, UCLA still found themselves down by five points and staring at the possibility of seeing their season coming to an abrupt halt.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., who scored a team-high 27 points, didn’t see the Bruins’ deficit as a matter of conceding.
“Win the game,” Jaquez said after the game. “It’s a lot of time left on the clock. You can do a lot in those 90 seconds. I wasn’t thinking about losing this game. I didn’t think there was any chance that we couldn’t come back to win. Winning was on my mind the entire time.”
Jaquez scored the last three points for the Bruins in regulation. UCLA outscored Michigan State, 9-3, in the overtime period to move on to the next round. The Bruins resiliency was front and center of this victory, Jaquez said.
“I think it says a lot about our team and our resilience that we have,” Jaquez said. “We knew coming out of the first half that’s not the half of basketball that we are used to playing. We knew we had to come out in the second half with a different energy, defensive mindset and try to get steals in transition.”
Jaquez was not shy about basking in his big moment.
“It’s just a big stage,” said. Jaquez. “As a kid, everyone dreams about playing in this tournament. This is March Madness. I know it might be corny, but you can feel the madness when you’re in the gym even when we had as many fans as we did. You felt the energy. The energy was there. It was live. We’re playing in John Wooden’s home court. That definitely meant something to us, to come in here and get the win for him. But this is the greatest time of year for a college basketball player.”
Featured Image: WEST LAFAYETTE, IN – MARCH 18: Marcus Bingham Jr. #30 of the Michigan State Spartans drives past Mac Etienne #12 of the UCLA Bruins in the First Four round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Mackey Arena on March 18, 2021 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)