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Column: It’s UCLA’s first trip to the Final Four in 13 years — and the most unexpected in forever

UCLA players celebrate victory over Michigan
UCLA players celebrate their 51-49 victory over Michigan on Tuesday in Indianapolis. The Bruins will play unbeaten Gonzaga in the Final Four on Saturday.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Massive Michigan kept swinging.

Unflinching UCLA refused to fall.

Massive Michigan attacked the rim, launched from deep, scrambled in the corners, battled in the middle, exhausted every weapon in final minutes drenched in furious desperation.

Unflinching UCLA didn’t blink, wouldn’t back down, led with their chests, fought with their chins, stayed in their stance, stood their ground.

These undermanned Bruins can take a punch. These overmatched Bruins can seize a moment. This unlikely group of Westwood darlings did both Tuesday night in sweatily grabbing and donning the only UCLA basketball number that has ever really mattered.

The Bruins are back in the Final Four.

With UCLA winning over Michigan Tuesday night, Pac-12 has now broken the record for most upsets by a conference.

No, their coach, Mick Cronin, can’t believe it either.

“Hell no,” he said. “Hell no.”

With a team bereft of two of its best players and its best recruit, with a resume so shaky they had to play a special game just to get into the NCAA tournament, 11th-seeded UCLA nonetheless answered the call of Bruin basketball history by charging back to basketball’s biggest stage with a 51-49 victory over top-seeded Michigan in the East Regional Final at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.

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No, their star Johnny Juzang can’t believe it either.

“Unreal, man,” he said. “Unreal.”

USC lost to top-seeded Gonzaga 85-66 in the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, ending the Trojans’ hopes of reaching the Final Four.

You know what’s really unreal? After the teams were tied at 46 with 5:23 left, the Wolverines didn’t score another basket. Missed their last eight shots. Bricked layups and runners and jumpers. Blew four chances to tie or win in the last eight seconds.

Massive Michigan folded in the face of unflinching UCLA, right down to the last gasp, a three-point fling by Franz Wagner with Jules Bernard flying in his face.

Clank. Game. Wagner put his hands on his head in agony. Bernard thrust his fists in the air in triumph. The Bruins danced on the floor in grinning, screaming disbelief.

If you were having an out-of-body experience while bouncing in front of your TV, join the club.

“It’s incredible, man … surreal … surreal … something, you know, growing up, you just dream about,” said Juzang. “And to do it with such an amazing group of guys … makes it just so wonderful. It’s beautiful.”

Jules Bernard of UCLA drives to the basket
Jules Bernard of the UCLA team drives to the basket against Franz Wagner of the University of Michigan on Tuesday in Indianapolis
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

The beauty is that, while this is UCLA’s 19th trip to the Final Four, it’s the first in 13 years and the most unexpected in forever.

This team doesn’t have the future NBA players who populated Ben Howland’s teams. They don’t have the depth of the group led by Jim Harrick. And there’s none of the star power of John Wooden’s squads.

None of them is a senior. None of them has any tournament experience. With the exception of Juzang, they’re mostly role players who just happen to play hard and play together and play for each other.

They’re not just good, they’re lovable good. They’re a breathing eight-clap. They’re so darn … Bruin-able.

“Everybody’s so unified. … We’re just all sharing in each other and rooting for each other,” said Juzang, later adding: “Just a lot of love, man.”

This beauty now must face a beast, UCLA advancing to play top-ranked and unbeaten Gonzaga on Saturday in the national semifinals.

Cover your eyes. The pregame chatter will not be pretty. The sports world will be picking the Bruins to get waxed in the same manner that the Bulldogs just manhandled USC.

But then, the sports world thought UCLA would lose the play-in game to Michigan State. And lose the first-round game to BYU. And lose the Sweet 16 game to Alabama.

Without injured Chris Smith, absent Jalen Hill and turned-pro Daishen Nix, few thought this Bruin team could even make the tournament. Then, after they blew leads in losing their final four games before receiving an invitation, nobody thought they had much of a chance to actually dance for more than a minute.

“Nobody would have said, ‘You’re going to the Final Four,’ let’s be honest,” said Cronin.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s father, Hep, has taken some of the spotlight during the Bruins’ run in the NCAA tournament.

So, really, when they take the floor against the machine that is Gonzaga, the Bruins will have the experts right where they want them.

“Nobody believed in us, nobody picked us, that’s the way we like it,” Cronin told CBS. “Obviously we know our next assignment is tough, but their resilience is unbelievable.”

That resilience resonated on a bruising Tuesday night that mirrored much of this month. As they have done in winning four of their five tournament games against favored opponents, the Bruins pounded the bigger, more physical and more gifted Wolverines into a pulp.

Michigan won all the glitzy stats. Michigan grabbed 10 more rebounds. Michigan scored twice as many points in the paint. Only five Bruins even scored, with more than half their points coming from Juzang’s 28.

Yet UCLA won the game because, for the umpteenth time in two years under Cronin, the team was tougher when tougher was needed.

“Stats are for losers. Either you win or you lose,” said Cronin. “I think that stat sheet can get crumbled up tonight.”

Crumbled like Michigan did against Kenneth Nwuba, a little-used Bruin reserve who played a career-high 20 minutes, didn’t score a point, yet grabbed five rebounds and drew four charging fouls. He was emblematic of a deep-digging Bruin defense that held Michigan standouts Mike Smith and Wagner to a combined two-for-17 while not allowing an easy layup or uncontested play.

“Our toughness, it’s been great all year,” said Cronin.

UCLA players and coaches celebrate
UCLA players and coaches celebrate their win over Michigan on Tuesday in Indianapolis.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

That was perhaps rarely more apparent than early in the second half, when Juzang was helped off the floor after seemingly re-injuring a bothersome right ankle. A couple of minutes later, he was back in the game and didn’t leave the court again, hitting a jumper with 1:05 left to give UCLA a three-point lead and sinking a free throw in the final seconds that eventually cemented the win.

“So we’ve got some lionhearted guys on this team, we’ve got some warriors, man,” said Juzang. “It kind of ... checks everybody because the guy to your right is putting his heart on the floor and the guy to your left is putting his heart on the floor. I know I’ve got an injury or whatever, but I’m getting right back out there because I’m trying to leave my heart on the floor.”

He and his teammates will put themselves out there at least one more time against powerhouse Gonzaga on Saturday, with UCLA’s 12th national men’s basketball championship just two wins away.

Again, underdogs. Again, unflinching.


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