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For Mick Cronin, UCLA Bruins are still winners despite agonizing Final Four loss

UCLA coach Mick Cronin celebrates with Cody Riley after defeating Michigan.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin celebrates with forward Cody Riley last Tuesday after the Bruins beat Michigan in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.
(Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

The long goodbye came after a celebration subdued by a once-a-century pandemic. Airport personnel who recognized UCLA’s bus upon its return to Los Angeles clapped, and students who spotted the Bruins once they reached campus cheered.

After grabbing their belongings, suitcases and garbage bags stuffed with Final Four mementos, everybody gathered outside the team’s practice facility Sunday afternoon. Players stared at coach Mick Cronin. Cronin stared back.

Nobody stirred, as if budging might cause them to lose hold of this magical journey. UCLA had made it from one of the last teams into the NCAA tournament nearly all the way to the end, forced out only by a miracle shot.

Finally, piercing the reverie as only he could, Cronin spoke.

“Pool party at my house,” the coach said.

His players howled with delight at the thought of gathering once more, freed from their uneasiness to exchange farewell hugs and head home.

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A formal celebration will have to wait for UCLA’s first Final Four team since 2008 because of lingering health restrictions related to COVID-19.

“Normal times, it would have been a tremendous welcoming committee for us,” Cronin said Monday by telephone, “but we couldn’t do anything on campus because of COVID.”

Coach Mick Cronin and UCLA restored faith in a basketball program poised to see more glory in the seasons ahead, Times columnist Helene Elliott writes.

Having won a record 11 national titles, the Bruins have traditionally honored only their championship teams with banners inside Pauley Pavilion. Breaking that custom to commemorate this team would please Cronin, so long as the school’s other Final Four teams were also celebrated.

“You do one, you’ve got to do all,” Cronin said. “I think it would be great.”

Sadness did not accompany the Bruins home from their loss to Gonzaga in a national semifinal Saturday night in Indianapolis, even after Jalen Suggs’ 40-foot heave at the overtime buzzer pierced their hearts. Cronin reiterated his belief to his players that three agonizing seconds inside Lucas Oil Stadium should not wipe out the glory of what had preceded them.

Eleventh-seeded UCLA was considered a coin flip to beat Michigan State in its First Four game after entering the NCAA tournament on a four-game losing streak. The Bruins fell behind by 14 points, rallied to win in overtime and were on their way in the East Region.

Another taut victory over Brigham Young was next, followed by a rare breather over Abilene Christian. Even with its own miracle shot to force overtime, second-seeded Alabama was no match for UCLA in a regional semifinal, the Bruins pulling away to win by 10 points. Mighty Michigan was the next giant to be slayed, the Bruins outmuscling a supposedly tougher nemesis from the Big Ten Conference.

Two days later, they matched unbeaten Gonzaga, exchanging one memorable play for another, before the Bulldogs conjured the final magic.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin celebrates with his team.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, celebrates with his team after its 51-49 win over Michigan last Tuesday in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Along the way, the Bruins formed an unbreakable bond while spending three weeks marooned on the ninth floor of the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. Some took pictures of their rooms upon their departure Sunday. Cronin left his Under Armour gear behind for the cleaning crew, a nod to the team’s highly anticipated transition to Jordan Brand.

“Stuff that’s all going to be obsolete anyway,” he said.

Text messages and calls flooded everybody’s phones as they prepared to head home. Cronin heard from Rick Pitino, his former boss at Louisville who understood perhaps better than anyone else the heartache that his protege had just endured.

It was Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats who were floored by Duke on Christian Laettner’s crazy shot in 1992.

“He talked about the Laettner loss and what that did for his Kentucky teams, how it helped them spring forward,” Cronin said, “and obviously what it did for their confidence going forward and recruiting.”

One year after Laettner’s shot, the Wildcats were in the Final Four. Three years after that, they were national champions.

The Bruins were feeling like winners as they returned home. Cronin said he was recognized at a store where he had once shopped anonymously.

“I noticed real quick,” he said, “that people know who I am at the store versus a month ago.”

UCLA and its fans are already looking forward to the 2021-22 season after their spectacular run to the Final Four, but which players will be back?

Cronin said he had 482 unopened text messages and might even start responding to some once he checked in with all of his recruits.

It remained unknown how many spots he might need to fill next season. Guard Johnny Juzang’s scoring spree over his last six games has made him an enticing NBA prospect, and guard Chris Smith could also opt to turn pro after sitting out the final three months of his senior season with a knee injury.

“I’m pretty sure his plan is to go to the NBA, and I fully support him,” Cronin said of Smith, “but I’m not closing the door on him.”

As his team began to plot its encore, Cronin said he planned to meet with his players both individually and as a team. There might not be any sad farewells, especially if everyone decides to return.

“My hope is everybody comes back,” Cronin said, “but you’ve got to talk to everybody and go from there.”


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