UCLA rallies to beat Akron and advance in the NCAA tournament
The first stop on the road back to the Final Four looked like a dead end.
Outhustled and outplayed by a quicker and more fearless team, UCLA stared at a rapid exit in the NCAA tournament.
Tyger Campbell stared back and didn’t blink.
Coolly sinking shot after shot, the poker-faced point guard rallied his team from the brink of opening-round embarrassment against Akron while facing an eight-point deficit with less than eight minutes to play. There was a three-pointer from the corner. A midrange jumper. Finally, and most improbably, an NBA-range three-pointer on a broken play at the end of the shot clock.
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“We didn’t really have a shot,” Campbell said afterward.
They found one when Jaime Jaquez Jr. tossed the ball back to his teammate, who glanced at the dwindling shot clock and knew he had to let the ball fly.
It went in and the fourth-seeded Bruins were on the way to a 57-53 comeback victory over the 13th-seeded Zips on Thursday night at the Moda Center.
Finally showing some emotion when the comeback was complete, Campbell shook his fists before getting mobbed by jubilant teammates. UCLA’s smallest player had come up huge, Campbell scoring eight of his team’s final 10 points as the Bruins closed the game on an 18-6 run.
“We didn’t panic,” said UCLA guard Jules Bernard, who added 10 points. “We’ve been in those positions before last year in the tournament, also throughout our seasons. So we know what that feeling is like, and we just try to stay composed as best as possible and know that our effort and toughness would pull us through.”
The Bruins (26-7) will play fifth-seeded St. Mary’s in the second round on Saturday afternoon after the Gaels whipped Indiana by 29 points earlier Thursday.
Campbell’s three-pointer at the end of the shot clock pushed UCLA into a 55-51 lead with 1:16 left, earning him a hand slap fromJaquez and a chest bump from Peyton Watson on the way to the timeout huddle.
There was some remaining drama. After UCLA’s Jaylen Clark missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity and the Zips made a layup to pull within 55-53, they got the ball back after Jaquez missed a turnaround jumper with 15 seconds left.
Akron’s Ali Ali drove toward the basket, where UCLA’s Cody Riley used his left hand to block the shot. Bruins guard Johnny Juzang grabbed the rebound with four seconds to go, was fouled and made two free throws to secure a victory that served as the best possible present on his 21st birthday.
Campbell finished with 10 of his 16 points in the second half and Jaquez added 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Bruins, who won despite making just 35.2% of their shots. They prevailed in large part because they committed only two turnovers after a sloppy first half.
Campbell’s three-pointer from the corner pulled UCLA within 51-50 and after Bernard drew an offensive foul, flexing in celebration, Campbell gave the Bruins a 52-51 lead with a midrange jumper.
In its illustrious history, UCLA had lost only twice to a 13th-seeded team, suffering that fate in 1991 against Penn State and in 1996 against Princeton.
Akron (24-10) appeared on the brink of handing UCLA more heartache heading into the timeout huddle with 7:54 left. Zips guard Xavier Castaneda (18 points) had just made back-to-back three-pointers and teammate Greg Tribble followed by flipping in a layup while falling down and getting fouled by Clark. Tribble made the resulting free throw to push Akron’s lead to 47-39.
A reminder of the potential for massive upsets was provided during warmups
when the final moments of 15th-seeded St. Peter’s triumph over second-seeded Kentucky on the other side of the East Region bracket was shown on the scoreboard, eliciting loud roars from fans as a few Bruins gazed at the screen.
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“That’s March for you right there,” Jaquez said. “It happens every year, teams get upset. And we were watching that game thinking to ourselves that can’t be us tonight.”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin had talked about showing humility with his team entering its postseason opener as 13 1/2-point favorites, but the Bruins were only humbled on the way to a 26-25 halftime deficit.
At that point, the Zips were winning across the board, shooting 37% to the Bruins’ 32% while committing one fewer turnover and grabbing one more rebound.
The day started on an upbeat note for UCLA. The school announced a new six-year contract for Cronin that will keep him at the school through the 2027-28 season and is expected to make him the highest-paid coach in the Pac-12.
But there was a bad sign — literally — on a television halftime show earlier when host Ernie Johnson asked Charles Barkley to pronounce Jaquez’s full name and Barkley got it right … but the placard Johnson was holding spelled Jaquez’s first name “Jamie.”
Like the Bruins, it was just a bit off until Campbell made everything right.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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