Column: UCLA finds mojo just in time to keep ugly tradition from being repeated

UCLA players celebrate their victory of Akron.
UCLA players celebrate their victory of Akron on Thursday in the NCAA tournament in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

It was the nightmare of Princeton, the embarrassment of Detroit Mercy, the humiliation of St. Bonaventure, all rolled together on a despairing march into madness.

It was the worst kind of UCLA basketball history repeating itself, the fourth-seeded Bruins being tackled around the ankles by an energetic 13th-seeded Akron that wouldn’t let go.

Mick Cronin was screaming and gesturing and literally hopping mad. His team was flustered and flailing and failing.


The Bruins could have lost. The Bruins probably should have lost. The Bruins’ ugly first-round NCAA tournament tradition dictates that they would have lost.

But not this UCLA team. Not them. Not now.

Not Tyger Campbell, who calmly floated in two deep splashes out of nowhere and scored eight points in the final three minutes.

“My teammates kept finding me, and I was just wanting to make a play,” he said.

Not Jules Bernard, who shouted and flexed and hit two big treys down the stretch.

“We’re a resilient team … we stuck it out,” Bernard said. “I feel like that’s the mark of a great team is when you’re battled and you face a challenge and you come out on top.”

UCLA mounted a comeback late to defeat Akron 57-53 on Thursday to advance to Saturday’s second round of the NCAA tournament.

And not Cody Riley, who leaped out of the doldrums to block an Ali Ali layup with four seconds remaining to seal an eventual 57-53 victory at Portland’s raucous Moda Center.

The Bruins trudged off the floor with as much relief as joy. It had been brutal. It had been exhausting. But they have been here before. They have done this before.

As in nearly each of last year’s five wins on their unlikely road to the Final Four, they were just tough enough to survive.

“You’re going to win a rock fight, you’ve got to put your hard hat on and you’ve got to take care of the ball … hang in there and get some stops and get a few shots to go down,” Cronin said.

Next up, St. Mary’s on Saturday at 4 p.m. here, and if the Bruins don’t find their rhythm and passion for a full 40 minutes, they could be in big trouble.

The Gaels, playing right before UCLA, obliterated Indiana 82-53 while playing with the discipline and energy of Akron.

They’re better than Akron. They have veteran leadership. They beat Gonzaga. They’re going to be a hard out.

“St. Mary’s plays at the same pace, their tempo,” Cronin said. “We’ve got to try to do some stuff to make them uncomfortable.”

Akron guard Xavier Castaneda leaps to put up a shot as UCLA forward Cody Riley and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. look on.
Akron guard Xavier Castaneda leaps to put up a shot as UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) look on during the second half of a first-round NCAA tournament game on Thursday in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

The Bruins won’t take St. Mary’s lightly, and they claim they didn’t take Akron lightly. They said they had been scared straight even before the game started.

Thirty minutes before the UCLA tipoff, as the Bruins took the floor for warmups, cheering filled the Moda Center from fans who were watching scoreboard video of 15th-seeded St. Peter’s 85-79 win over second-seeded Kentucky.

The upset is huge for UCLA, as the Wildcats appeared to be the Bruins’ biggest East Region hurdle on their path back to the Final Four. But it was even bigger because it served as a warning.

“That’s March for you right there,” Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “It happens every year, teams get upset. And we were watching that game thinking to ourselves, ‘That can’t be us tonight … we just knew we didn’t want to be the ones getting upset tonight, and we’re looking forward to bigger things.”

Also, before the game, it was announced that Cronin had signed that new six-year deal just one year after signing a two-year extension. The guess is that UCLA officials were worried that the Cincinnati native would return to coach at his old stomping grounds in Louisville.

It’s a good move for the university. In three short years Cronin has energized the program and made it relevant again. He has filled Pauley Pavilion, given the Bruins citywide buzz, and basically made UCLA basketball feel like UCLA basketball again.

Yet the signing was almost overshadowed when Cronin nearly suffered the same fate as all his predecessors dating to Jim Harrick.

It has seemed to be in the DNA of 30 years of UCLA basketball coaches to blow an NCAA first-round gimme.

For Harrick, it was Penn State, Tulsa and Princeton. For Steve Lavin, it was Detroit Mercy. For Ben Howland, it was Minnesota. For Steve Alford, it was the horrendous play-in loss to St. Bonaventure.

Was it going to happen again? It nearly did.

Here are the five biggest surprises from a perfectly wild day one of 2022 March Madness.

Akron, which had never won an NCAA tournament game, led throughout the game, seemingly grabbing every loose ball and winning every individual battle. The Zips grabbed a 47-39 lead with 7:54 remaining, then held a four-point lead with three minutes remaining.

But Bernard kept it close, and Campbell gave them the lead, and Riley closed it out in a remarkable show of fortitude.

“We’ve got a veteran team, it wasn’t a battle because we weren’t ready, I’ll tell you that,” Cronin said.

In those final minutes, it could have been time to fold. Instead, it was time for the Bruins experience, their leadership, their mettle.

With 2:49 left, Campbell hit a three-pointer from the corner on a tremendous pass by a driving Jaquez to pull the Bruins to within a point.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell shoots a three-pointer against Akron.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell shoots a three-pointer against Akron during the second half of a first-round NCAA tournament game on Thursday in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

“I saw him wide open, and I knew this guy has got heart and he’s going to make a big shot,” Jaquez said.

Seconds later after an Akron turnover, Campbell flipped in a jumper to give UCLA the lead. Then, with 1:19 left, he buried a deep three-pointer to give them a 55-51 edge they never lost.

“He worked on that for 10 minutes yesterday during our shooting … we had already practiced,” said Cronin of the dagger shot.

Indeed, Campbell had been there, and done that, and in their darkest hour in these first moments of the tournament, the Bruins eventually lit up the gym with the simple declaration.

Not them. Not now.