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Column: For resilient Bruins, a magical victory on John R. Wooden Drive

A UCLA player throws a basketball
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. shoots a three-pointer during Thursday night’s game. Jaquez played the entire game and scored a career-high 27 points.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

His statue is outside the front door, his banner is hanging from the rafters, his letter sweater is in the concourse, his name is even on the adjoining street sign.

On a magical Thursday night at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, UCLA really did play an NCAA Tournament basketball game on John R. Wooden Drive.

And his spirit became them.

When they needed his fight, they found it. When they required his resilience, they discovered it. When they were forced to summon some of his old-school wizardry, they somehow concocted it.

In the end, their overtime victory over Michigan State — an 86-80 comeback in the tournament’s “First Four” play-in game at Wooden’s alma mater — came with the ultimate compliment.

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Coach would have loved it.

They came back from a 14-point deficit late in the first half. They came back from a five-point deficit in the final 90 seconds. They tied the score in regulation after an offensive rebound. They sealed the tie when their defense forced an airball. They dominated the overtime by attacking the basket. They ended the game with their second-leading scorer, Johnny Juzang, writhing on the floor in pain, then leaping off the bench in one-legged celebration.

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Goodness gracious, Coach would have really loved it.

“We felt the energy, it was here, it was live,” said the Bruins’ Jaime Jaquez Jr., who played the entire game in the West Lafayette, Ind., gym while scoring a career-high 27 points. “We were playing in John Wooden’s home court, and that definitely meant something to us. We wanted to come in here and get the win for him.”

Basketball players struggle for the ball
Michigan State’s Rocket Watts and UCLA’s Johnny Juzang battle for a rebound in the first half Thursday.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

It was a win for all of Bruin Nation, the biggest win since they last triumphed in the tournament four years ago, and perhaps the most symbolic win in the 13 years since they last roamed the Final Four. While it officially leads only to a first-round game Saturday against sixth-seeded Brigham Young, it unofficially marks the beginning of a new era.

Under Mick Cronin, the Bruins basketball culture is finally changing. Under this gesturing, growling, fiery sprite of a dude, the team is sturdier, more focused, playing harder, playing smarter.

They entered the contest on a four-game losing streak with blown leads in all four games. They played without two of their best players in injured Chris Smith and absent Jalen Hill. They ended the game with Juzang — who scored 23 points — being helped off the court in the final minute with an ankle injury. They pulled it off with the sort of furious resolve not seen in a UCLA basketball team in years.

“This is March Madness. … I know it might be corny, but you could feel the madness when you’re in the gym,” said Jaquez.

Michigan State and its bully coach, Tom Izzo, are known for March strength, but the Bruins were stronger. The Spartans are known for their March calm, but the Bruins were cooler.

Down by two possessions with a minute and a half left? So what?

“What was going through my mind? Win the game,” said Jaquez. “You can do a lot in those 90 seconds. … I didn’t think about losing this game. I didn’t think there was any chance we couldn’t come back and win.”

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In the final tying seconds of regulation, it was Jaquez who wrestled the rebound off his missed free throw, tossed it to Tyger Campbell, then took it back for an “and one” layup.

In the final clinching seconds of the overtime, it was the Bruins, not the Spartans, who played like the Big Ten team unafraid to get its elbows scraped and its hands dirty. It was the Bruins, not the Spartans, who took a punch and finished the game on an incredible 60-40 run.

“That’s Bruin basketball now,” said Cronin. “That’s the type of stuff that’s the hallmark of winning programs. In our quest to build our culture and our toughness, it was really fitting we won that way.”

And to think, the Bruins’ five main contributors are all products of Southern California high schools, from Etiwanda to Winward to Camarillo to Harvard-Westlake to Sierra Canyon.

It was not only an important win for the UCLA program, but a resounding statement about how it is once again connecting with the region, and a ringing endorsement for the man making those connections. For many, it was the night that Cronin was officially welcomed to Westwood.

“It’s cool to be the UCLA coach,” Cronin said. “It’s extremely cool for me.”

It’s extremely cool to see the 11th-seeded Bruins helping each other on defense, making the extra pass on offense and following each other to the rim, where they grabbed three more offensive rebounds than the bigger Spartans.

Highlights from UCLA’s 86-80 overtime victory over Michigan State in the NCAA tournament First Four.

“He’s a really tough coach, he’s hard on us, but he brings out the best in us, as you guys saw tonight,” said Jaquez. “Just that game shows what type of coach he is.”

In his second season and first NCAA tournament as Bruins coach, Cronin now has his first Bruins tournament win in a place that expects plenty of them. He could deliver another one as soon as Saturday against BYU.

Of course, Cronin’s pep talk will have nothing to do with the final score.

“I coach at a place where the best coach ever used to sit in a chair. Coach Wooden said greatness is giving your best effort — he never talked about winning or losing,” said Cronin. “I really don’t talk about winning or losing a lot with these guys. I try to talk to them about their effort ... to get them to understand there’s a big difference between effort and winning effort, championship effort.”

On this night it was a message received … and maybe from somewhere above, a message sent, in a plain-spoken manner that only Wooden’s legacy can convey.

“To have this win here, with his jersey up there … maybe he was looking down on us,” said Cronin.

And now it’s on to BYU, where, quickly but with no hurry, the Bruins will hope to make another day their masterpiece.


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