After slipping up in their final four regular season games and missing an outside chance of winning the regular season conference championship, UCLA headed to T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas looking to find their identity on the cusp of a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins earned themselves a four-seed set to battle fifth-seed Oregon State in the first round of the conference tournament, only to fall to the Beavers in overtime and make an early exit.
On Selection Sunday, UCLA was awarded an 11th seed and a “play in” game against the Big Ten’s Michigan State Spartans. The team was resilient and stormed back to defeat the Spartans in overtime to secure a spot in the “Big Dance”.
The Bruins put it all together to pull out a momentum-changing win over sixth-seeded BYU to advance to Monday’s second round where UCLA defeated surging 14th seed Abilene Christian 67-47 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017.
So, how did the Bruins get here? UCLA entered the madness off four consecutive defeats. All of these late season losses came after the Bruins had comfortable leads. Prior to getting bounced from the conference tournament by the Beavers, UCLA had one quality win over Pac-12 runner-up Colorado in January.
As a result of lacking quality wins and late season heartbreaks, Mick Cronin’s squad saw themselves on the bubble to get into the tournament as they watched teams like Georgetown and Oregon State sneak their way into the field of 68.
“The mood of the room was very stressful, very tense,” sophomore guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said, “but once we heard our name called, we just had a sigh of relief and we were all just very happy.”
UCLA hobbled their way into the tournament after making waves early in the season. However, after losing its best player in Chris Smith to a torn ACL at the start of conference play and its warrior on defense-Jalen Hil-who left the team for personal reasons in early February, the Bruins snuck their way into the field after losing six of their last ten games.
All the players from Westwood needed was a chance to prove themselves to the nation, and have they shown up to the party at the right time.
To get to this point, the Bruins have dispatched their three opponents with the last two wins over BYU and Abilene Christian being double-digit victories. As a first four winner, the Bruins are trying to make noise by advancing through the tournament which was last done by VCU in 2011 (Final Four appearance).
When the Bruins battle second-seeded Alabama on Sunday, they had to speed up their pace against teams that loved to run fast-paced offenses. On the bright side, UCLA seems to have found its strong suit from the three-point line.
Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. lead the way for the boys in blue. Juzang has averaged 22.3 ppg and four rebounds in the three wins thus far. He scored a team-high 27 points on 10-16 shooting.
Jaquez Jr. carried the team on his back in the Bruins’ come from behind win in the first four scoring 27 points on 11-20 shooting. He followed that with 23 points in the last two games orchestrating the Bruins offense to the Sweet 16, their first appearance since 2017.
Fast forward to Sunday, the boys from Westwood battled second seed Alabama in what some have called the “game of the tournament” thus far.
It took an additional five minutes, but UCLA dug itself out of a hole to upset the Crimson Tide in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
Sunday’s win signifies how far the Bruins have progressed throughout the tournament. All five Bruin starters saw themselves get into double figures with Jules Bernard and Jaquez finishing with 17 points respectively while the bench also got in on the party with David Singleton adding 15 of his own.
“We’re not finished yet, we’re not finished,” said Jaquez. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
The Bruins got hot early and went into the locker room up by double digits. But, the SEC champion would not go down quietly. Alabama clawed its way back catching UCLA flat-footed nailing a three-pointer as time expired to send the game to overtime.
Cronin explained what he told his guys in the huddle as they prepared for overtime.
“I just tried to stay calm with the guys, just tell them we’ve got to continue to execute,” Cronin said. “There’s many times we could have packed it in, but I told them they’ve been putting up with me for two years now trying to beat into them competitive spirit and toughness because when you combine that with talent, you have a chance to do great things.”
Despite being without iJuzang who fouled out with 2:26 left in regulation, UCLA outplayed Alabama in the extra period going on a quick 7-0 run which was highlighted by a steal-and-score by Tyger Campbell, who finished the game with 13 points and was one of the Bruins better scorers in transition in the game.
The Bruins advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008, one win on the cusp of returning to the Final Four. UCLA duels with the No. 1 seed in the East region, the Michigan Wolverines from the Big Ten on Tuesday night from Lucas Oil Stadium. Tip-off is at 6:57 p.m.