Column: Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s ankle injury brings scary twist to UCLA’s trail in NCAA tournament
Welcome, UCLA, to the Bittersweet 16.
On an afternoon where the Bruins’ powerful heart pounded out an NCAA tournament second-round victory over St. Mary’s, that heart dropped.
In a game where the Bruins’ sturdy backbone came together to fluster and flummox a disciplined Gaels team in a 72-56 victory, that backbone crumpled.
It happened with 6:58 left in Saturday’s game. It happened underneath the St. Mary’s basket. It was sight that filled the Moda Center stands with clutched foreheads and covered mouths.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. went down and stayed down. The kid who has been carrying this team all season on two tortured ankles finally collapsed.
He had been fighting for a rebound. His right ankle lost the fight. He ended up flat on the hardwood writhing in pain. He grabbed his lower leg. Coach Mick Cronin rushed to his side.
Jaquez eventually walked off under his own power, but with a scary limp while placing only limited and clearly painful weight on the ankle.
After briefly disappearing into the tunnel, he returned to watch the rest of the game from the bench. When his teammates gathered around during timeouts, he stayed seated. When the game ended and everyone lined up to shake hands, he limped back to the locker room.
UCLA is back in the Sweet 16 of NCAA men’s basketball tournament, keeping its March Madness run alive in a 72-56 victory over St. Mary’s.
The official word is that Jaquez is day to day with a right ankle sprain.
The unofficial word is, hold your breath.
The Bruins are well-built and well-coached and have overcome countless moments of adversity during a season that has landed in a second consecutive Sweet 16.
But face it, they desperately need their leader to recover in time for Friday’s East Regional semifinal showdown in Philadelphia against North Carolina.
“What he gives to our team … he’s one of the best players in the country,” Cronin said plainly.
Powering through the paint while combining a steamroll attack with a feathery touch, Jaquez scored 15 Saturday in a first half that basically decided this game, and it was nothing new. He scored 80 in a three-game stretch at the end of the season. He is their most consistent presence, their most physical attacker, their toughest defender, Cronin personified.
“He brings defensive grit. … Offensively he’s a matchup nightmare,” said Tyger Campbell, Saturday’s leading scorer with 16. “He’s just a really good all-around player, and he brings toughness to our team.”
UCLA can take comfort in that, this season, the Jaquez toughness has become legendary.
In November, Jaquez finished a game after his face absorbed a cut that trickled blood. Soon thereafter he was pulled out of a game in the first half when he fell hard on his head. Then there’s his ankles, both of which have been previously injured such that he has played with braces on both since the middle of February.
“He’s had so many sprained ankles, I don’t know how much he can sprain it anymore,” Cronin said.
But Jaquez has continually climbed back up such that he’s missed only one start. And Cronin isn’t going to stop believing now.
No. 8 seed North Carolina blew a big lead against No. 1 seed Baylor before prevailing, and No. 15 seed St. Peter’s also won to reach the Sweet 16.
“We got until Friday to play and trust me, if he can walk, he’ll play,” Cronin said. “I know him … most guys that have what he has would have sat the rest of the season out. So, we’ll see.”
Cronin, who led the team to its first consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in six years, was quick to point out that the Bruins have the depth to replace Jaquez — namely defensive whiz Jaylen Clark and occasionally brilliant freshman Peyton Watson. To be sure, where some thought Jaquez’s injury might inspire the Gaels, the Bruins actually outscored St. Mary’s 17-9 after Jaquez departed.
“Obviously, we play through [Jaquez] a lot on offense,” said Cronin. “But I just told Jaylen Clark and Peyton … these guys got talent and these guys are still playing. So obviously, you want Jaime to be healthy, but if he’s not, we got other guys we can play.”
Both subs played 10 minutes Saturday and both did well, with Clark recording a plus-12 and Watson making his only shot with a rebound and a steal.
“All we can do is come together,” Campbell said.
Once again Saturday, they showed a togetherness that would be crucial in Jaquez’s absence. After struggling to make plays early in the game, their team defense tightened up and made an incredible push, climbing down the Gaels’ jerseys and harassing them into bricks and iron. With UCLA trailing 20-13 midway through the half, the Bruins went on a 15-2 run during which the Gaels missed 12 consecutive shots while committing three turnovers.
The Gaels threw up blind layups against double teams, distant crazy three-pointers with hands in their face, and buzzer-beating hurls that never had a chance.
All this time, with the St. Mary’s basket directly in front of the UCLA cheering section, the Gaels offense was surrounded by constant roars that seemed to shake them.
UCLA, meanwhile, made 11 of its last 17 shots of the half to take a 36-29 halftime lead that was never threatened.
Meanwhile, while Jaquez’s condition was the big question, this game might have also provided an answer. Maybe, just maybe, previously injured and out-of-sorts Johnny Juzang has rediscovered his touch. He made six of 11 shots. He grabbed eight rebounds. He smiled.
“The togetherness has been great,” Juzang said. “You can just feel it. I know all of us can … it’s the best feeling, man. Especially in March, man … we have so much fun.”
They are certainly carrying the right mindset into a difficult regional semifinal, where they will face a North Carolina team that has trailed for only 3:49 of 85 minutes in the first two rounds. The Tar Heels beat Marquette by 32, and led Baylor in the second half by 25, and are playing their best basketball of the season entering a Wells Fargo Center that will be surely filled with their fans.
“You can’t be playing better than Carolina is playing,” Cronin said.
The UCLA Bruins used elite defense to defeat seasoned Saint Mary’s in the NCAA tournament Saturday, punching their ticket to the Sweet 16.
As they showed Saturday, the Bruins seemingly have every tool to take down the Tar Heels … except one … for now.
The eight-clap cheer that filled the Moda Center early Saturday evening was overshadowed by three-word wish directed at the player who could not take part in the postgame celebration, perhaps their most important player of all, one Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Get well soon.
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