UCLA’s March Madness run ends in heartbreaking Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina
This was not the end he envisioned to what had seemed like another step in another magical journey only moments earlier.
After he had pushed through so much, carrying his team with his shots and his spirit while playing on a bad ankle, Jaime Jaquez Jr. finally had to acknowledge it was over.
He stuck the tail of his UCLA jersey in his mouth and glanced around the Wells Fargo Center in the final moments Friday night, no savior in sight.
Extending his misery, Jaquez had to make the long, lonely walk to the free throw line on the opposite end of the court after officials put three-tenths of a second back on the clock so that North Carolina could shoot two meaningless free throws to extend its massive game-ending push.
UCLA was moments away from reaching the Elite Eight for the second time in as many years before North Carolina surged late, dashing the Bruins’ dreams.
The outcome in this NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal had appeared headed in a different direction just two minutes earlier. The Bruins led by three points and were possibly about to get the ball back after their defense had forced a missed shot.
“Just do whatever it takes to get a win and get a stop,” UCLA guard Jules Bernard said of his mindset in that moment. “I mean, that’s our mentality. But obviously that’s not how it went.”
The sequence that followed will haunt the Bruins for an entire offseason.
A wild flip save by the Tar Heels with the ball headed out of bounds. One North Carolina three-pointer and then another, followed by a tip-in.
By the time the breathless series of misfortune ended, the Bruins’ three-point lead had been transformed into a five-point deficit.
UCLA held no late counters in its bid to conjure more postseason thrills, the fourth-seeded Bruins’ season ending with a 73-66 loss after the eighth-seeded Tar Heels scored 12 of the final 14 points.
“They’re heartbroken,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of his players.
The game felt almost like a ticket to the Final Four given that 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s had upset Purdue earlier in the evening, becoming the first team seeded that low to advance to the Elite Eight. North Carolina (27-9) will face the nation’s newest Cinderella on Sunday in the regional final.
There were no immediate tears for the Bruins (27-8) on their way off the court, point guard Tyger Campbell waving to fans after his team fell short in its bid to reach a second consecutive Final Four.
Campbell’s driving layup gave his team a 64-61 lead with 2:07 left. Almost everything else went North Carolina’s way.
The Tar Heels made their own fortune, starting when center Armando Bacot saved a missed shot from going out of bounds. He flipped the ball to Caleb Love, who rose for a three-pointer that tied the score with 1:40 left.
“That’s going to keep me up at night,” Cronin said of Bacot’s save.
As they had for much of the game, the Bruins went back to Jaquez, who became their go-to guy over the season’s final weeks before he badly sprained his right ankle toward the end of the second-round victory over Saint Mary’s. Jaquez tried to prop up his team once more but missed a three-pointer.
Love then buried another three-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 67-64 lead with 63 seconds left. After Jaquez missed another jumper, Bacot converted a tip-in to extend North Carolina’s lead to five points with 15 seconds left.
Campbell drove for a layup but the Bruins fouled Love with seven seconds left and he made two free throws, essentially sealing UCLA’s fate.
Jaquez took his team’s final shot and missed that as well before UCLA’s Johnny Juzang fouled RJ Davis, leading to those free throws that counted even if they didn’t matter. Jaquez finished with 10 points on five-for-18 shooting, missing his final nine shots after a steal and breakaway dunk with nearly 17 minutes left. He said his ankle wasn’t bothering him, but fatigue may have been a factor after he logged 38 minutes.
“The truth is we had a lot of good execution and the ball didn’t go in,” Cronin said. “Our last three threes were wide open. We got Jaime the ball down low. He’s delivered for us all year time and time again.”
Bernard led UCLA with 16 points, Campbell added 15 and Juzang had 14. But the Bruins were outrebounded by nine, surrendered 15 offensive rebounds and gave up a 19-6 edge in second-chance points.
Love led the Tar Heels with 27 of his 30 points in the second half after making 11 of 24 shots overall, including six of 13 three-pointers.
“One hot player can send you home,” Bernard said.
Six days after limping off the court with his latest ankle injury, Jaquez announced that he had fully recovered when he unleashed a couple of dunks in pregame warmups, including one off a lob from a student manager. Jaquez’s jumper over Brady Manek at the end of the shot clock pushed UCLA into an early lead, sparking an 8-0 push for a 22-14 advantage.
But the Tar Heels delivered the first of many answers, pulling to within 31-28 by halftime.
The teams started trading highlight shots, not to mention the lead, about midway through the second half. UCLA’s Jaylen Clark made a corner three-pointer only to be topped by a deep, straightaway three-pointer from Love.
The Bruins appeared to finally have some separation when Bernard drove for a reverse layup and a 56-51 lead. Bruins forward Cody Riley got the ball back with a block and steal, and a “U-C-L-A!” chant broke out as the team set up its offense.
But in a sign of things to come, Jaquez missed a layup and a short jumper and North Carolina rolled off five consecutive points, pulling into a tie on Love’s three-pointer.
Cronin lauded his players for a two-year run that included having been ranked as high as No. 2 in the country this season in addition to that Final Four.
“They’ve restored UCLA to the national scene,” Cronin said. “My message to them is that you can’t let people say, ‘Well, hey, you did not win it all this year or your season is not a success.’ That’s a ludicrous statement. Although I came to UCLA to try to get this 12th title and I’m not going to leave until I do.
“But for them — I’m a teacher, so for them their lesson has got to be, did they give their best effort, and the answer is yes. These guys did a great job of making UCLA basketball relevant again.”
Over the last two weeks, North Carolina has taken on the role of UCLA from a year ago, a big name with a low seed fighting for respect.
The Tar Heels found it. The Bruins went home.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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