UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. makes fans on both sides of the border with tenacious play

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. celebrates.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. celebrates after the Bruins beat Michigan to advance to the NCAA Final Four.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

As he sprawled across the court, initially diving for the loose ball before crawling in further pursuit, Jaime Jaquez Jr. inspired a city, a team and two nations.

Watching on television from his friend’s sports bar in Bell, Lorenzo Mata found himself spellbound by his successor as the latest Mexican American sensation from UCLA on the verge of a Final Four.

“I was like, man, that’s a winning player,” Mata said, “and that’s contagious to the whole team.”


Two days earlier, Earl Watson, whose maternal grandparents emigrated from Guadalajara to Texas long before he starred at point guard for the Bruins two decades ago, was similarly riveted by Jaquez’s dribble side-step three-pointer in overtime.

“That play right there is like, ‘Oh, no … good shot,’ ” Watson recalled with a laugh.

With every improbable shot that he makes, every rebound he rips away from counterparts who dwarf him and every pass that he tips toward a teammate in the NCAA tournament, Jaquez’s legion of admirers continues to swell on each side of this country’s border with Mexico.

“Jáquez es héroe” read the headline in a Guadalajara newspaper after the sophomore guard made that crazy three-pointer and finished with 17 points while playing all 45 minutes during the Bruins’ upset of second-seeded Alabama in an East Regional semifinal.

Johnny Juzang is the biggest piece in UCLA’s run to the Final Four as the tournament’s leading scorer.

Striding triumphantly between the tables inside Halftime House of Heroes, which his buddy had closed except to a handful of friends, Mata held his old UCLA jersey aloft and pointed to the Final Four patch on one shoulder.

“Hey,” Mata said in a video he posted on Twitter, “one more game. One more, bro.”

The Bruins would get there after more gritty play from their most fiery player. He would power his way through two defenders for a put-back and exchange bruises for the ball after diving in pursuit, knocking it off a Michigan player to give UCLA possession during its upset of the top-seeded Wolverines.

“He was just not going to let that ball go,” said Angela Jaquez, Jaime’s mother, who proudly marinated in the moment inside Lucas Oil Stadium. “I was like, that’s my baby.”

His parents call him “Jaimito,” or Little Jaime, alluding to his father having the same name, but no one comes up bigger when it comes to making the plays that can galvanize a team. He’s become so indispensable on the Bruins’ run to their first Final Four since 2008 that coach Mick Cronin rarely takes him out of games.

The payoff comes in possessions saved, momentum salvaged, order restored. UCLA found itself in a taut first-round game against Brigham Young when Jaquez pursued a rebound and snatched it from the grasp of Matt Haarms, the Cougars’ 7-foot-3 center who held a nine-inch advantage over his counterpart.

Stirred by the display of toughness, the Bruins went on to win by double digits.

“One thing about Jaime, he is not afraid,” Cronin said. “He’s a true fighter. He’ll go 15 rounds toe to toe with anybody.”

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. looks to pass over Michigan guard Mike Smith.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. looks to pass over Michigan guard Mike Smith during the first half of an Elite 8 game in the NCAA tournament on Tuesday in Indianapolis.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

The roots of his fearlessness can be traced in part to the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango, where his paternal great-grandparents once lived. They eventually headed north across the border to the plains of Oxnard, lured by a booming agriculture industry that offered jobs in packing houses.

Jaime’s grandfather Ezequiel became a multisport high school standout who went on to play baseball and basketball at Northern Arizona. As a young pitcher, Jaime Sr. tilted his head skyward, imitating the delivery of Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers legend of Mexican descent. Jaime Sr. later played basketball at Concordia in Irvine, where he met Angela, a two-time All-American who coveted a challenge.

“We’d do scouting reports,” Angela said, “and it was like, I didn’t care who I was going to guard because that person wasn’t going to score.”

Both parents coached their son, Jaime Sr. instilling relentlessness and Angela telling him that bad nights on offense were inevitable but there was no excuse for playing poorly on defense because it relied exclusively on effort. The young boy’s expression never changed, remaining stoic even when challenged at uncomfortably high volume.

A graphic showing how Houston, Baylor, UCLA and Gonzaga made it to the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
How Houston, Baylor, UCLA and Gonzaga made it to the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

Little Jaime showed early resolve when he asked to play in a youth baseball game during a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., after having broken his thumb. Slipping on a small cast, he hit a home run.

A two-sport star at Camarillo High, Jaquez played club basketball for UCLA alumnus Kris Johnson, a member of the Bruins’ 1995 national championship team. His style of play reminded Watson of NBA All-Star guard Manu Ginobili because of his unorthodox moves and ability to finish at the rim.

Jaquez’s success goes much deeper than basketball to Watson, symbolizing the opportunity that coming to America presents. It also is part of a rare coalescing of cultures at a time of social unrest.

“Everything socially that our country is going through, there’s no better representation than that UCLA team — you’ve got Black, you’ve got brown, you’ve got brown and you’ve got white,” Watson said, alluding to a team that also includes players of Asian descent. “That roster truly represents the melting pot of our country and look at how they’re coming together to win games.”

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

Citing a poll showing that basketball had become the most practiced sport in soccer-crazed Mexico, Mata said he “guaranteed” that Jaquez was gaining a foothold in popularity south of the border. He’s already made the Mexican national team, playing in the Pan-American games, while enjoying visits last season from Mata inside the Bruins’ locker room at Pauley Pavilion.

A similarly tenacious member of three Final Four teams, Mata is known as “The Matador.” He’s given his protégé a nickname, calling him “El Chivo,” or The GOAT.

Mata has also delivered a mandate of sorts about the meaning of their heritage.

“I told him, ‘Yeah, it’s not only about UCLA or L.A.’ ” Mata said. “ ‘You have a whole other country in Mexico that’s rooting for you and having your back there.’

“He was like, ‘Yeah, don’t worry, I got it.’ ”