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Column: UCLA reviving Westwood with talent and swagger amid renewed title hopes

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, celebrates with Johnny Juzang in the final seconds of the Bruins' 86-77 win.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, celebrates with Johnny Juzang in the final seconds of the Bruins’ 86-77 win over Villanova at Pauley Pavilion on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Pauley Pavilion was actually hot, steaming on a November night, sweat dripping across white shirts and pumping fists.

Pauley Pavilion was actually loud, seats shaking, walls creaking, noise flowing down in waves that startled and suffocated.

One of this city’s grandest sports venues is acting like a kid again, revived by the return of an old friend that some feared had been lost forever.

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UCLA basketball is officially back.

What was promised in an Indiana bubble last spring has come to fruition in a Westwood celebration that began Friday night in the second-ranked Bruins’ 86-77 overtime win over fourth-ranked Villanova.

UCLA students waiting outside Pauley Pavilion for Friday’s basketball game describe a scene similar to the deadly surge at the Astroworld Festival.

UCLA basketball is loudly, boldly back.

You could see it on the floor, the Bruins fighting back from a 10-point deficit in the last 10 minutes with both stiff-arms and swagger, Johnny Juzang gunning and posing, Jaime Jaquez Jr. scrapping and scrambling, and often-overlooked Jules Bernard saving the game with a crazy fall-away runner that banked in.

“Well, they do know how to win,” said a smiling Bruins coach Mick Cronin.

You could hear it in the crowd, most dressed in white, each of the 13,659 seats sold, including several thousand students who waited in line all day for a chance to show a national television audience that college basketball’s greatest tradition can once again roar. The kids alone were so impressively noisy that after the game, Cronin faced them from the court, pointed in their direction, and screamed back.

“Just thanking the students,” said Cronin. “I appreciate all of the donors, but the students are the ones that bring excitement.”

More than anything, you could feel it in the air, which was filled late with chants of, “We Want Gonzaga,” in reference to the Bruins’ showdown with the top-ranked Bulldogs in a couple of weeks.

The question is, does Gonzaga want UCLA? Does anybody want UCLA?

After seeing how the Bruins behaved in this first monumental matchup of the season, it’s legitimate to view them as the best team in the country. Every player who participated in last year’s run to the Final Four is not only back, but better. They don’t only survive frantic final minutes, they embrace them.

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. battles Villanova's Eric Dixon for a loose ball during the second half.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

They need a shot, Tyger Campbell hits consecutive three-pointers to begin their comeback. They need a stop, Jaylen Clark forces a last-second miss on a layup attempt by Justin Moore to send the game into overtime.

They need a three-pointer midway through overtime to deflate the weary Wildcats, Jaquez nails it. And they need their best player to play to the crowd and raise the commotion, Juzang is more than happy to do both.

At one point during his 25-points-on-24-sometimes-crazy-shots night, Juzang ran downcourt shaking his head like, “You just can’t stop this.” At another point, he flexed his biceps like, “You just can’t handle this.”

Is it any wonder immediately after the game, one of Juzang’s more subdued teammates followed his lead, Campbell faced the crowd and spread his arms wide and smiled like, “Aren’t we something?”

These Bruins, more pure fun than any UCLA team in recent history, are something indeed.

“I think it just comes from the personalities we have on this team,” said Jaquez Jr. “I know myself, Johnny and Tyger, we live for that, we live for the crowd, we live for those big moments and it just feeds us more fuel and when we need someone to make a great shot, we’ve got guys that can make those, so I think it’s just something that we have inside of us.”

That something has somehow made its way into the tough bones of Cronin, who was brought here three years ago to be a taskmaster, but has suddenly become a ringleader.

UCLA's Jonny Juzang, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. celebrate after defeating Villanova on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He spent his previous two seasons instilling a culture based on muscle and defense. But now that the gifted Bruins have bought it, he’s delightfully loosening the reins and letting them shine.

“They do believe in themselves … even in the huddle, they believe in themselves,” Cronin said. “And they know I believe in them. Offensively, you see I believe in their talent.”

Not that he still doesn’t believe in getting a stop. On Friday night he actually benched Juzang during important Villanova possessions down the stretch because Clark is a better defender, a decision that led to six straight Villanova missed shots late in regulation and early in overtime.

But make no mistake. Cronin is not only accepting the swagger, he’s riding with it.

“I agree that they have it, but that’s because they believe in themselves and are talented kids,” said Cronin.

In their last nine games dating back to last March, these talented kids have played five overtime games against tournament teams. They’ve won three of those games, with one of those losses coming on that last-second shot by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs.

Thus, when overtime arrived Friday, they briefly celebrated, then visibly shrugged. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. It showed. This was a November game that felt like March. These Bruins can do March.

“Just an inner confidence that we’ve been in this situation, that helped us lock down the stretch,” said Juzang. “Going into overtime … it’s lucky that we got guys with so much experience.”

There were many colorful scenes decorating awakened Pauley on Friday night, from Michael Buffer doing his rumble to Dave Roberts serving as honorary captain and accepting a basketball from Tyus Edney.

Jessica Alba was there. Jamaal Wilkes was there. Bill Walton was there, of course he was. And in the end, serving as the Bruins’ victory hymn, the words of Tupac’s “California Love” were there.

“The atmosphere was great, the fans showed so much support, such a great turnout and the energy was amazing coming from the team, all of us and also Pauley,” said Juzang. “It was amazing.”

Yet nothing was more compelling than a scene reminiscent of last spring’s celebrations, when, in the final 10 seconds, the Bruins locked in a tight circle near midcourt, hugging one another and hopping on the hardwood and showing again why they all returned.

They want this moment. They want this season.

They want Gonzaga.


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