UCLA’s title hopes shattered in Final Four loss to Gonzaga in overtime
No matter what the experts said, the metrics predicted, the casual or diehard fans believed, Mick Cronin felt assured of two things in the face of this challenge of a lifetime.
His team would show up. It would play to win.
UCLA had come too far in the NCAA tournament, defied too many odds in surviving March to reach April, to give in now, no matter the probabilities or the season-long perfection of its nemesis.
So the Bruins fought, surged ahead early and responded to every challenge against a team expected to end its season in runaway fashion, pushing Gonzaga into overtime.
It was there that the top-seeded and unbeaten Bulldogs were just a smidgen better, a smidgen more fortunate in pulling out an epic 93-90 victory in a national semifinal Saturday night at a delirious Lucas Oil Stadium.
The ending was mayhem, not to mention crushing — absolutely crushing — for the Bruins.
UCLA nearly shocked unbeaten Gonzaga in the Final Four, but Jalen Suggs made a 30-foot shot as time expired in overtime to give the Bulldogs a 93-90 victory.
One moment, UCLA’s Johnny Juzang was going in for a putback of his own miss to tie the score with three seconds left.
The next, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs was rising for a 40-footer that he banked in at the buzzer before leaping onto a courtside table and raising his arms in triumph.
As the Bulldogs swarmed Suggs in celebration of a moment that might have seemed like serendipity 15 years after a UCLA comeback left Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison in tears, the 11th-seeded Bruins (22-10) were left to ponder a devastating end to a season that looked like it might last two days longer.
They placed their hands on their heads and pulled their jersey tops out of their pants, huddling to console one another before making a solemn march toward the locker room. Cronin delivered some soothing words once they got there.
“I just told them they got to let the last shot go, and as much as they want to be down right now and gutted and miserable, they gotta let it go, because they’re winners,” Cronin said after an undermanned team missing two of its top players became only the second in the history of the tournament to advance from a First Four to the Final Four.
Highlights from the UCLA-Gonzaga Final Four game, which the Bulldogs won 93-90 overtime
After exhaling deeply, Gonzaga (31-0) survived to reach its first championship game since 2017, when the Bulldogs lost to North Carolina. They will go for the first title in school history Monday when they face top-seeded Baylor after the Bears routed Houston in the earlier semifinal.
There could be more history to be made. Having extended its winning streak to 35 games going back to last season, Gonzaga will try to complete college basketball’s first undefeated season since Indiana was flawless in 1976.
Destiny looked like it might nudge the Bruins onward late in the overtime. UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. made a three-pointer to pull his team within 90-88, pumping his fist in celebration, before the Bruins got the ball back following a Gonzaga miss. With the clock at less than 10 seconds, Juzang drove for a floater that missed, but he grabbed the rebound and put it into the basket.
With three seconds left, Cronin could not stop the clock to set up his defense. Suggs took the inbounds pass along the right side before driving furiously into the frontcourt. He finally pulled up for the jumper, rising over the outstretched arms of UCLA’s David Singleton as an entire arena held its breath.
The ball caromed off the backboard and through the net. Cronin said his players were not to blame.
During Mick Cronin’s two years as UCLA coach, there have been clutch late baskets for and against the Bruins. Here’s a look at all of them.
“I was running at our guys to get their attention to trap the ball,” Cronin said. “I got their attention late, and they came to him late, and it’s not their fault, because we trained them to get back … and I knew all [Suggs] had was a desperation heave.”
More chaos had broken out in the final seconds of regulation with the score tied when Juzang drove toward the basket, triggering contact and a whistle. Everybody looked at the officials. It was a charging foul with 1.1 seconds left.
UCLA pushed to extend its magical run through the NCAA Tournament, falling to No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in overtime Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Juzang got some redemption when he intercepted Suggs’ inbounds pass, sending the game into overtime and prompting Cronin to pump his fist.
Completing a tournament run that has made him an intriguing NBA prospect, Juzang finished with 29 points on 12-for-18 shooting. Jaquez scored 19 points and Tyger Campbell added 17 points and seven assists for the Bruins, who were nearly without Jules Bernard after he needed intravenous fluids to play through a sickness that caused him to throw up the preceding night. He finished with five points in a foul-plagued 18 minutes.
Even so, UCLA nearly beat a team that entered as a 14-point favorite behind statistics that defied belief, not to mention defenses. The Bulldogs entered the game averaging 91.6 points, shooting 54.8% and walloping teams by an average of 23.1 points. They had not played in a game decided by single digits since beating West Virginia by five points … on Dec. 2.
UCLA had found itself in slugfests all season, playing three overtime games in the NCAA tournament alone, making it understand the resolve that was needed. The Bruins dug deep to find it, nearly reaching the championship game for the first time since 2006.
“We became one of the best four teams in the country, period,” Cronin said. “This was not a fluke tonight; we would not have gotten blown out Monday night.”
Gonzaga got there after refusing to fold in the face of some rare pressure. Super-skilled forward Drew Timme scored six quick points to start the overtime on an array of impressive moves on his way to finishing with 25 points. Joel Ayayi added 22 points and Suggs had 16 for the Bulldogs, who shot 58.7% despite making only seven of 21 three-pointers.
But after building a five-point lead and looking like it might win somewhat comfortably, Gonzaga needed every tick of the clock to endure its biggest scare of the season against a team that continued to restore luster to its legendary name.
“We’re UCLA, man,” Juzang said. “We’re not a Cinderella program; I think that those days are behind us. We’re restoring the legacy, so much history here, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
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