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Step aside, Sister Jean, it’s father Hep Cronin’s NCAA tournament now

Hep Cronin stands with his son, UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin.
Hep Cronin, left, stands with his son, UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin at Mick’s home in Cincinnati on May 28, 2019.
(Alex Slitz / For The Times)

Halfway up the stands inside the old basketball barn, Mick Cronin’s biggest fan turned into his harshest critic, a father wondering what his son was doing after having cheered what appeared to be his greatest triumph only moments earlier.

Hep Cronin was shown pumping his fists on the Hinkle Fieldhouse video board with his son’s UCLA Bruins holding a three-point lead over Alabama with only four seconds to play in the NCAA tournament East Region semifinal. For years, father and son had discussed just what to do in this sort of situation: foul before the other team can get off a three-pointer that could tie the score.

“Every time somebody blows a game not fouling,” Hep would say later, recalling his exchanges with the son he had coached and mentored, “we call each other and say, ‘Whoop, they did it again.’ ”

So Hep was horrified late Sunday night when he watched the Crimson Tide inbound the ball to a quick guard who ran away from two defenders, finding a teammate who rose for a three-pointer that deadlocked the score with only four-tenths of a second left in the second half.

“I think that’s when I ripped my mask off and the security guard wasn’t happy,” Hep said. “I ripped it off and was ready to throw it in the stands, I was so mad.”

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Anger turned into elation once the Bruins scored the first seven points of overtime. Hep turned to a friend and told him that the blunder didn’t matter, they were going to win anyway.

UCLA was advancing, a nationally televised family reunion continuing, father Hep outlasting Loyola Chicago’s Sister Jean as the feel-good fan story of the NCAA tournament and part of the postseason run of a lifetime for a Cincinnati high school coaching legend and his son.

Under coach Mick Cronin, UCLA channels great Bruins of the past — Kareem, Wooden and Walton — and wills its way into the Elite Eight of NCAA tournament.

“To have your father here throughout all this,” Mick said Monday on the eve of the 11th-seeded Bruins’ regional final against top-seeded Michigan on Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium, “has been awesome.”

Over the last two weeks, Hep has symbolized a family’s unquenchable love, every emotion caught by cameras trained on him from tipoff to final buzzer. He’s been shown pumping his fists, clapping his hands raw and, most touchingly, descending the bleachers inside Purdue’s Mackey Arena to see Mick after his Bruins came back from 14 points down in the First Four to beat Michigan State in another breathless overtime.

A security guard tried to stop Hep on the way to the railing above the court, mindful of safety restrictions intended to protect players and coaches from fans amid the once-in-a-century pandemic.

Just like his son’s team, Hep would not be denied.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not stopping, I’m seeing my son,’ ” remembered Hep, who will turn 80 in August. “ ‘I haven’t seen him in one year, you’re not stopping me.’ ”

They had last seen each other in late February 2020, after Mick’s team had defeated Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion as part of another late-season run in which the Bruins won 11 of 14 games. Plans were hatched for Hep to join his son’s team wherever it landed in the NCAA tournament.

But UCLA learned the morning of its scheduled Pac-12 Conference tournament opener against California that the tournament had been canceled because of the worsening coronavirus crisis, quickly boarding buses for a flight home. By the time the team landed, the NCAA tournament had been called off as well.

When the Bruins were finally cleared to return to campus in September, Hep wasn’t around for his usual practice visits. He contracted the virus around Thanksgiving but didn’t have a severe case, an infusion of drugs speeding his recovery.

Hep received his first vaccination shot earlier this month, emboldening him to drive from his Cincinnati home to each of his son’s NCAA tournament games. He was there for the Bruins’ epic rally against Michigan State, their out-toughing of Brigham Young, their running over Abilene Christian and their thrill-a-second triumph over Alabama.

What made Hep’s presence all the more meaningful were the previous times he had been there for his son.

Hep had been there when a local youth team coach handed a uniform to Mick’s older brother, Dan, and surprised everyone in the Cronin family by also handing one to Mick, then only 4 years old. Mick’s eyes widened as his slipped the jersey over his shoulders, his father incredulous.

“I said, ‘Mick, you’re not really on the … ’ ” Hep started.

“I’m on the team,” Mick finished, later getting in at the end of blowouts even though his shots couldn’t reach the bottom of the net.

Hep had been there for late-night film sessions inside their home involving his two sons and most fiery players, Dan a starting guard and Mick his replacement off the bench. The boys would plop down on the couch, somebody would order a pizza and they would stick the game tape in the VCR and study tendencies for hours.

Hep had been there when Mick got his first coaching job just by tagging along to a high school game his father was scouting. One of the coaches spotted Mick in the stands and told Hep he wanted to offer Mick a job as a varsity assistant and freshman coach. The yearly pay was only $1,500. Hep said his son was in, commencing a career that would eventually land him at Cincinnati before he took the UCLA job two years ago.

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.

Hep had also been there for plenty of March disappointments, Mick’s teams at Cincinnati never having advanced past a regional semifinal before Sunday ended in the most pulsating finish father or son had experienced. When the two spoke on the phone afterward, Mick explained his not having fouled Alabama because he was worried about someone heaving a shot from behind the arc at the moment of contact and being awarded three free throws.

All that mattered was that they were moving on, Mick pounding his chest with a clenched fist and pointing at Hep in the stands after the Bruins had persevered.

“It made it even sweeter,” Hep said of the late drama. “Here we are, boom, Elite Eight.”


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