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Column: UCLA channels its inner-Bruin and becomes elite once again

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and Johnny Juzang celebrate after the Bruins beat Alabama 88-78 in overtime.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and Johnny Juzang celebrate after the Bruins beat Alabama 88-78 in overtime Sunday during the NCAA tournament Western regional semifinals in Indianapolis.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

They lost their leading scorer in the final minutes. They lost their mind in the final seconds.

As its Sweet 16 game with Alabama stunningly ended in a regulation tie, UCLA had seemingly lost the momentum, mojo, and magic that had carried it to the precipice of a program revival.

Then, in five brilliant overtime minutes, they found it. Once again, for a fourth straight occasion in this wild ride of an NCAA tournament, they found it.

They found that Wooden wisdom, that Kareem coolness, that Walton toughness, that inner-Bruin that once carried this program to 11 national titles.

They found a three-pointer by David Singleton, a blocked shot by Cody Riley, a steal and layup by Tyger Campbell, a fall away three by Jaime Jaquez Jr., a rolling stretch of resilience that once defined an era.

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Eleventh-seeded UCLA’s March Madness run continued Sunday with an 88-78 overtime win over No. 2 Alabama in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

It’s back. They’re back. Go ahead, dance like those giddy kids in blue at Hinkle Fieldhouse’s midcourt in Indianapolis Sunday night, because UCLA basketball is officially elite again.

Overcoming a buzzer-beating three pointer by Alex Reese that tied the score at the end of regulation, the Bruins shrugged, sighed, and blew out the favored Crimson Tide in overtime to claw out an 88-78 victory in the East Region semifinals and earn an Elite Eight matchup Tuesday with Michigan.

“[Bleep] yeah!” came the happy curse from off-camera before the UCLA postgame videoconference.

Indeed.

“That was us celebrating, my hair is all wet, we were throwing water, it was a good time in that locker room right now,” Jaquez said.

He and his teammates had spent the previous couple of hours playing as if their hair was on fire, overcoming a more athletic and skilled Alabama team that threatened to run away early and then seemingly applied a dagger late. The result was their second overtime victory in this tournament and second win as a lower seed amid echoes of Bruin history.

Highlights from UCLA’s overtime victory over Alabama in the NCAA tournament on Sunday.

This is UCLA’s first trip to the Elite Eight since Ben Howland last took them there in 2008, with one slight difference.

That team had Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Darren Collison. This team has the three J’s — Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Jaquez.

With stomping and stalking Bruins boss Mick Cronin continuing to delight all of Westwood by creating a team that wills its way to victory, this was arguably the best-coached UCLA win since Howland’s three-year Final Four run began in 2006 with a Sweet 16 upset of Gonzaga. Yet there is another slight difference.

That team had Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. This team played the final 2:27 and overtime without fouled-out star Juzang.

“You know how much I’ve been trying to instill the will in them, where you just refuse to give in, somebody may beat you but you never let up and you never give in,” Cronin said.

It is only Cronin’s second year, but his team reflects his toughness as if he’s been here for decades. They make the extra pass. They take the thundering charge. They held the nation’s best three-point team to seven treys and 25% shooting from beyond the arc. They battled a great ball-hawking team to 15 offensive rebounds apiece.

UCLA's Tyger Campbell, left, and Cody Riley battle for a loose ball with Alabama's John Petty Jr.
UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, left, and Cody Riley battle for a loose ball with Alabama’s John Petty Jr.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

“It’s hard to dig in and deal with a short Irishman telling you to get in a defensive stance,” Cronin said. “I’m very thankful the guys hung in there and helped me build this.”

The coach is even big enough to admit he blew it at the end of regulation, when his players allowed Alabama to traverse the court with four seconds remaining and set up Reese for his tying three-pointer from the top of the key without an earlier foul.

If the Bruins had hacked ballhandler Jahvon Quinerly, the most they could have allowed was two points on free throws.

Instead, Cronin let him dribble because he was fearful that upon being fouled, Quinerly would have thrown it and received three free throws.

“I’m a foul guy, [but] that was my concern, they knew, when we went to foul and he was going to shoot it,” Cronin said. “Obviously the kids bailed me out.”

That sideline huddle after Reese’s shot must have been a nightmare, right? Players pointing fingers, coaches screaming, chaos?

USC will play top-seeded Gonzaga and UCLA will play Michigan in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament on Tuesday.

Think again.

“We knew we had nothing to worry about,” Jaquez said. “This is March. It happens all the time. That’s something we’re used to, going into these games and overtime games.”

Excuse me? This is the first March for any of these players, none of whom are seniors, which surely makes them the youngest team remaining in the tournament. Jaquez might have been brimming with confidence, but Cronin knows the difficulty in what they pulled off.

“This was tough,” Cronin said. “When you’re in this situation, man, and that happens to you at the buzzer, you’ve got every reason to fold, every reason to fold. These guys just refused to give in.”

The game appropriately started with a UCLA bruise. On the first possession, Campbell took an elbow by Herbert Jones for a charge. On the second possession he jumped in front of Jones and sacrificed his body for another charge. Forty-one seconds into the game, the Southeastern Conference’s player of the year had picked up two fouls and was walking to the bench.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin gestures during a Sweet 16 game against Alabama.
Mick Cronin has UCLA back in the Elite Eight in his second year as coach.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

The game ended with another UCLA bruise, Jaquez clinching it with a fighting three-pointer at the end of the shot clock over a harassing Tide defense in the overtime’s final two minutes.

On this team, every time is crunch time.

“[Cronin’s] whole attitude coming into UCLA is that, no matter what happens, we’re going to be the toughest team to go out there and play,” Jaquez said.

Mission accomplished. Michigan next. The Wolverines will be heavily favored. Their inner-Bruin tells this team it doesn’t matter.

“We’re not finished,” Jaquez said, and it’s impossible to disagree.


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