UCLA defeats St. Mary’s to return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell drives around St. Mary's guard Logan Johnson during the first half Saturday.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell drives around St. Mary’s guard Logan Johnson (0) during the first half of the Bruins’ 72-56 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

A year after lingering on the court to dance, they saved their moves for the locker room as part of a new March tradition.

All eyes fixed on Russell Stong IV, the walk-on guard who has become the centerpiece of every UCLA celebration in the NCAA tournament. Stong clutched a black-and-white placard bearing the school’s name and held it aloft for his cheering teammates. He placed it on a bracket, smoothing it out with his left hand before slapping it three times with his right.

As Bruins’ hollering intensified, the placard fell to the floor. Stong picked it up and put back on the board.


“Slap it on there!” somebody yelled. “Slap it on there!”

UCLA faces adversity after Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s ankle injury in Saturday’s second-round win over St. Mary’s, but don’t count out Jaquez or the Bruins.

March 19, 2022

Stong complied and the cheering resumed at an even higher volume. Nothing could sour the mood as the Bruins contemplated what they had just done as well as where they are headed.

Next stop, Philadelphia.

UCLA is moving on to the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive season after locking down St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday evening at the Moda Center.

Wiping out an early seven-point deficit in what seemed like an instant, the fourth-seeded Bruins ratcheted up their defense several notches and withstood the loss of guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. to a sprained right ankle with about seven minutes left on the way to a 72-56 victory over the fifth-seeded Gaels.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin flashed a thumbs-up to fans on his way off the court, his Bruins (27-7) having advanced into an East Region semifinal against eighth-seeded North Carolina in a regional semifinal on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. The Tar Heels got there after toppling defending national champion Baylor in overtime earlier in the day.

UCLA and North Carolina were supposed to meet in Las Vegas in December before the Bruins went on a 26-day COVID-19 pause after an outbreak on the team.

“Now we’re going to play in Philly with the season on the line,” Cronin deadpanned. “That’s all.”

It’s the first time UCLA has advanced to the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons since doing so in 2014-15 during coach Steve Alford’s first two seasons.


The final minutes of the Bruins’ latest triumph were an extended celebration. With his team up by 15 points and fans chanting “U-C-L-A!”, forward Cody Riley provided his own exclamation point. Riley salvaged a possession that appeared headed for ruin by making a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock, savoring the moment by holding three fingers aloft.

Riley’s defense had been a game-changer. He spent much of the game hounding St. Mary’s point guard Tommy Kuhse as part of the Bruins’ revamped pick-and-roll coverage designed by assistant coach Rod Palmer.

“We tried to make them into a non-passing team,” Cronin said, “and make guys score on us off the dribble.”

UCLA guard guard Johnny Juzang shoots over St. Mary's guard Tommy Kuhse during the first half Saturday.
UCLA guard guard Johnny Juzang shoots over St. Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse during the first half of the Bruins’ 72-56 win Saturday.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

The Gaels rarely succeeded, making 14 of their final 40 shots (35%) after starting the game making six of nine.

The only drama in the final minutes revolved around Jaquez’s ankle. He went down along the baseline with slightly less than seven minutes left before limping off the court. Jaquez scored 15 points on six-for-11 shooting while carrying the Bruins’ offense for long stretches of the first half.


Jaquez tested the ankle in a hallway before taking a spot on the bench, turning around to see his mother blow him kisses from her seat three rows back. When the game ended, Jaquez limped toward the locker room instead of the handshake line.

But the Bruins remained confident their grittiest player, who has persevered through an assortment of ankle injuries as well as inflammation, could return given nearly a week between games.

“Trust me,” Cronin said, “if he can walk, he’ll play.”

Cronin reminded reporters of his team’s wing depth, one of the Bruins’ strengths. That ensemble cast was on display as point guard Tyger Campbell scored 16 points and Jules Bernard and Johnny Juzang added 14 each for the Bruins.

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.

March 19, 2022

The home of the Portland Trail Blazers ended up being R.I.P. City for St. Mary’s, which was bidding for only its second Sweet 16 in school history and first since 2010. Logan Johnson led the Gaels (26-8) with 18 points.

The Bruins were ahead only 48-44 when Juzang, largely missing in action since returning from a sprained ankle this month, scored six consecutive points for his team on a jump hook in the lane and baseline jumpers from each side of the court, extending the cushion to 10 points.

“Feeling good, man,” Juzang said. “Just trying to build up.”

UCLA surged into an unlikely 36-29 halftime lead given the game’s opening minutes couldn’t have gone much worse. The Gaels’ offense flummoxed UCLA to the point that Cronin resorted to a dreaded rarity — a zone defense — and Johnson, who once played for Cronin at Cincinnati, responded with a three-pointer to break an early tie.


The UCLA Bruins used elite defense to defeat seasoned Saint Mary’s in the NCAA tournament Saturday, punching their ticket to the Sweet 16.

March 19, 2022

The Gaels eventually took a seven-point lead before the Bruins started to master their new pick-and-roll coverage while unleashing possibly their best defense of the season.

Relying on traps, shuffling feet and active hands, UCLA rolled off a 13-0 run while St. Mary’s missed 12 consecutive shots and committed three turnovers while going scoreless for 6½ minutes.

At one point, the Bruins in full lockdown mode going into a timeout, UCLA freshman guard Peyton Watson flapped his arms to invigorate the roaring crowd.

“Our bench was going crazy,” Bernard said.

It was the same in the locker room after the game, the Bruins not ready for this March run to end anytime soon.