Column: A moment lost. A dream finished. UCLA’s quest for another miracle season is over

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, left, and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. react in the final seconds.
UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. react during the final seconds of the Bruins’ 73-66 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday night.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

It was so fast, so furious, so final.

The UCLA basketball team was just moments from returning to the Elite Eight on Friday night, its fight full, its swagger strong.

Then the Bruins were gone in an instant.

The miracles of last season turned on them. The heroes of last season faltered.

UCLA led North Carolina by three points with two minutes left in an East Regional semifinal when a smooth coronation devolved into a startling nightmare.


The Bruins’ defense didn’t work. Their muscle disappeared. Jaime Jaquez Jr. couldn’t shoot.

The Tar Heels came up swinging — bam, bam, bam — and UCLA went down hard and for good, losing a 73-66 decision to end its season two wins short of last year’s Final Four run.

Ended it like that.

“For it to end the way it did, it hurts,” UCLA’s Johnny Juzang said.

UCLA can’t hold on to the lead after North Carolina embarks on a late 12-2 run on the way to a 73-66 win in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

March 25, 2022

That way was not the UCLA way. Everything that UCLA has done right in three years under coach Mick Cronin suddenly went wrong.

Leading 64-61 with 2:07 left, the UCLA defense forced a bricked three-point attempt by North Carolina’s Caleb Love. But the Tar Heels’ Armando Bacot somehow saved the ball from going out of bounds, flinging it back while falling across the baseline, putting it back in the hands of Love, and this time he nailed a three-pointer.

Tie score. Uh oh.

“That changed the game,” Cronin said. “We get that rebound, it’s a different. ... Obviously that’s going to keep me up at night.”


His sleeplessness was just starting.

At the other end of the Wells Fargo Center court, Jaquez missed a three-pointer, one of his nine consecutive missed shots to end the game. Jaquez suffered a sprained ankle last weekend in a second-round win against Saint Mary’s, but would make no excuse.

“It wasn’t bothering me,” he said of the ankle.

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) defends North Carolina's R.J. Davis (4) on March 25, 2022 in Philadelphia.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) defends North Carolina’s R.J. Davis. Jaquez, who suffered a sprained ankle last weekend, had 10 points and shot five for 18 from the field.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The Tar Heels rebounded Jaquez’s miss and Love came down and hit another wild three-pointer to give them the lead. Oh no.

“They got hot, they started making tough shots, and it happens like that sometimes,” Jaquez said.

At the other end, Jaquez missed a runner, and now the wheels were coming off. Seconds later, Bacot tipped in a follow shot that barely crept over the rim, and that was that.

Game over. Moment lost. Dream finished.

“I felt like we had a real chance to do something really big, so just unfortunate ... it sucks,” Juzang said.


The difference between this ending and many previous endings for this special Bruins team was startling.

No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s defeated Purdue 67-64 on Friday to continue its stunning NCAA tournament run, while top-seeded Kansas beat Providence.

March 25, 2022

Instead of hugging in joy afterward, they fell into one another’s arms. Jaquez pulled his jersey up and bit into it in agony. Jules Bernard, who kept the Bruins in the game with hustle and finesse, stared at the ceiling in pain.

“Yeah, they’re heartbroke,” Cronin said.

While UCLA makes the flight back home, North Carolina sticks around to play Saint Peter’s, the delightfully feisty 15th-seeded Cinderella story of this tournament that brought the roaring fans at Wells Fargo Center to their feet earlier Friday by upsetting third-seeded Purdue.

It will be a David versus Goliath for the ages. The Peacocks are inspiring, they are fun, they’re literally strutting into NCAA history, and the Tar Heels should not look past their undersized opponent toward New Orleans and the Final Four.

But if North Carolina bullies Saint Peter’s the way it eventually bullied the Bruins, Cinderella won’t last long. That two of those last three key baskets came after offensive rebounds is no coincidence. The Tar Heels outrebounded UCLA on the offensive boards, 15-8, and outscored the Bruins in second-chance points, 19-6. That was the difference.

North Carolina big man Armando Bacot (5) battles UCLA guard Peyton Watson (23) at the rim March 25, 2002.
North Carolina big man Armando Bacot (5), who had 14 points and 15 rebounds, battles UCLA guard Peyton Watson at the rim.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“We knew that was going to be the biggest problem, that was my focus,” Cronin said. “I ... tell them all this isn’t going to matter if we can’t get the rebound. We didn’t get the job done on the defensive glass. They’ve got too much firepower to give them second shots, third shots at times.”

UCLA’s inside presence should be stronger next season with Myles Johnson playing a second year and the arrival of five-star big man Adem Bona from Northern California. But for now, the Bruins just weren’t big enough or strong enough, and North Carolina miracle mashed them.

“Sometimes about the sun, it doesn’t always shine in the same place,” Cronin said. “You have to understand that. You have to be a man and deal with it.”

The college basketball world must now deal with North Carolina, which has won nine of its last 10 games including a blowout of Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game and an upset of East Regional top seed Baylor in this tournament. The Tar Heels must be considered a favorite to win the national championship.

“These are things they’re going to be talking about for the rest of their life,” coach Hubert Davis said of his team.

It was indeed a wild night, two great teams firing back and forth, two historical giants shaking the floor in south Philly.

The game heated to a boil early in the second half when Jaquez stole the ball at midcourt and raced down for a flying dunk off that bad ankle. Who would have guessed it would be the last time he scored? Juzang then blocked Leaky Black and led to a Johnson tip-in at the other end.

Bruins fans react in the final seconds of UCLA's loss to North Carolina on March 25, 2022.
Bruins fans react in the final seconds of UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina in Philadelphia.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA led by five, North Carolina fired back with clutch shots and fighting rebounds, but the Bruins kept the pressure on, matching every Tar Heels punch with a punch until Campbell’s spinning layup gave them that three-point lead with 2:07 remaining.


At that point, the mandate was clear. The Bruins just had to do what they have done in so many big wins over the last two seasons.

“Just do whatever it takes to win and get a stop, I mean, that’s our mentality,” Bernard said. “But that’s not how it went.”

It went bad. It went south. It went summer.

But how it went should not mar the greatness that this group brought back to Westwood. This might have been the end of a season, but it was also the continuation of a new and brighter Bruins era.

“They’ve restored UCLA to the national scene,” Cronin said. “My message to them is you can’t let people say, well, hey, you did not win it all this year ... your season is not a success. That’s a ludicrous statement.”

Cronin walked into the chilly Philadelphia night with a promise.

“I came to UCLA to try to get this 12th title and I’m not going to leave until I do,” he said.

On a night of shocking finality, he and Bruins Nation will have to wait till next year.