The last time UCLA and Gonzaga met on the hardwood, was in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs and Bruins met in the ‘Sweet 16’ where second-seeded UCLA came roaring back from 13 points down to defeat Gonzaga en route to a spot in the national championship game ultimately losing to Joakin Noah and the Florida Gators.
On Saturday night, the 11th seed Bruins who captured the attention of many after entering the tournament as an at-large selection were a win away from punching their ticket to the national title game on Monday night.
Standing in their way? No. 1 seed Gonzaga. The two teams made the game entertaining. The Bruins hung around with the undefeated Bulldogs.
But after playing the top seed tough and sending the game to an extra period, Jalen Suggs hit a half-court bank shot as time expired to punch Gonzaga’s to Monday’s national championship game against Baylor of the Big 12 Conference.
“These guys, they deserved a better ending,” said coach Mick Cronin. “But like I told them, as coach (John) Wooden would say, ‘True greatness is giving your best effort.’ And that’s what they did.”
UCLA had their opportunities to shake up the tournament and deliver the knockout blows but factors such as late-game turnovers, missed free throws, and circumstantial foul calls allowed the Zags to stay in the game.
Moments before overtime, the Bruins missed a three-point shot attempt with 17 seconds left in regulation. UCLA’s scoring machine throughout the tournament, Johnny Juzang put the game into his hands, let the clock run down, and drove to the basket looking to end the game in regulation.
Alas, the officials blew the whistle as Gonzaga’s Drew Timme positioned himself to draw a player-control foul to send the game to overtime.
“Obviously, I was hoping they’d call a block,” Cronin said. “It’s the hardest play in the world for an official and if I see the film and it looked like the guy was moving, then sometimes things aren’t meant to be. And I can tell you the official, if he did miss it, I’m sure he didn’t mean to.”
Johnny Juzang led all Bruin scorers with 29 points on 12 of 18 shooting while sinking 3-6 shots from behind the arc. Sharpshooter Jaime Jaquez Jr. contributed 19 points, while swingman Tyger Campbell added 17. Cody Riley chipped in 14 points for the Bruins.
As Gonzaga players rushed the floor in jubilation with Suggs after a crazy ending, UCLA players walked the tunnel of Lucas Oil Stadium in shocked disbelief. Juzang reflects on the challenges his team faced to get to this point, and how while the ending wasn’t ideal, his team stuck together through it all.
“Everybody is so proud to play with each other and to play for these coaches,” Juzang said. “And there’s no other way we’d rather go out, we went out fighting. … There’s no better way, there’s no regrets. Just everybody fought to the last play and the last shot was the last shot. (I’m) so grateful to call these guys teammates.”
UCLA finishes the 2020-21 season (22-10 overall, 13-6 Pac 12). And in two years under Mick Cronin, the 2019 conference coach of the year guided his team to the final four.
The future of basketball in Westwood is looking very bright.