March Madness is back and has been one for the ages. Upset galore, especially in the Big Ten, and there were a few contenders for the Cinderella team of the tournament, between UCLA, Oral Roberts, and fellow conference foe Oregon State. But the Bruins were the Cinderella feature, and just like the fairy tale goes, the clock struck midnight on Saturday vs Gonzaga.
That Bruin/Bulldog matchup will go down as one of the best Final Four games in March Madness history. Unlike the Baylor/Houston game earlier, where the Bears got off to an early lead, and then ran away with it, ultimately winning by 19; the UCLA/Gonzaga game was down to the wire all the way through. Gonzaga entered the game as the heavy favorite, because of how they were able to blow out every team they came in contact with. The Bulldogs beat their opponents by an average margin of 20, which is 1st across the whole NCAA field. But Mick Cronin and his Bruins knew about the overwhelming odds stacked against them, and they were able to do something that no team has done all year, keep Gonzaga right there with them. There
were so many lead changes throughout, neither team led by double digits at any point (UCLA 6) (Gonzaga 7). When Gonzaga scored a bucket, someone on the Bruins side quickly responded, whether it was Jaquez, Juzang or Campbell. Each team was trading blow for blow, going pound for pound. It had all the makings of a classic Muhammad Ali boxing fight, between Sugar Ray Leonard or Joe Frazier.
UCLA had the chance to win the game in regulation, but due to a charge call on Juzang, it resulted in an offensive turnover and regulation hit double zeros. The match went into overtime and Gonzaga looked like they had some fresh legs, right out the gate, and UCLA seemed lost. Gonzaga got off to a quick lead, then in do-or-die time with under 2 minutes to go, UCLA crawled their way back. Tyger Campbell kicked it to Jaquez Jr for a quick 3, to cut the lead to 2 with 50 seconds remaining. Kispert, from Gonzaga, tried to respond with a triple of his own, but it fell short. UCLA got the miss, 20 seconds left with the shot clock greyed out, down by 2 with a trip to the National Championship on the line. Juzang missed his jumper, but rebounded his miss and tipped it back through the net, tying the game with 3 seconds left. But before UCLA fans could breathe a sigh of relief for a second overtime, Gonzaga quickly threw it to Suggs who launched a half courter, it’s Saturday night so the bank was open. Gonzaga is heading to the National Championship.
Even though Bruin fans may not be pleased with how their team went out, there are so many positive motivating factors that give promise to the future. UCLA entered the Big Dance as an 11 seed in the First Four race. They lost Chris Smith and Jalen Hill due to injuries, which are big losses, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Bruins entered the tourney on a cold spell, having lost their last 4 regular-season games. It also didn’t help that their first game was against Michigan State. Unlike UCLA who got cold in February, the Spartans were red hot, and against some elite company. They were able to beat Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan, all three got in as top seeds, the lowest being Ohio State as a 2 seed. Entering that First Four game, there was some doubt that UCLA would be able to get to a second game.
But somehow, and in overtime, the Bruins took down the Spartans. A duo of Jaquez with 27 points and Juzang with 23 was lethal. UCLA managed to play another game in the tournament, but they weren’t satisfied yet.
The Bruins went through BYU, Abilene Christian who upset 3rd seed Texas, SEC Champion Alabama, and 1st seed Michigan. It was the 2nd time in March Madness history, where a First Four team reached the Final Four, the only other was VCU in 2011. Every night the Bruins marched on that hardwood, it looked like they had this 6th sense of confidence, that people can keep doubting them, but they love to prove more wrong each time out.
Even though UCLA didn’t keep up their winning ways against Gonzaga, their performance was still telling. Like I previously mentioned, the Bulldogs haven’t been challenged all season long. Their most down-to-the-wire game heading into the Final Four, was against Oklahoma in the Round of 32, Gonzaga won by 16. But, UCLA held a lead throughout multiple points in the contest. And when they were down by a few scores, the Bruins clawed their way back inch-by-inch. No deficit was too large for UCLA to overcome against arguably one of the best college basketball teams we’ve ever seen. Looking at the final 3 seconds, it still took a Top 3 projected NBA draft pick, and some luck, to shoot a half-court shot for the win.
Now that the Bruins 2021 season came to an end, let’s look to their incoming 2021 class. UCLA has a Top 30 class in the nation, and 5th in the PAC 12, which is an improvement from 8th last year. For starters, Peyton Watson is a 5-star forward who is an in-state guy from Long Beach, California. According to 24/7 Sports, he is ranked the 3rd best forward in the country, and a top 10 player, regardless of position. Will McClendon is a 4-star guard from Las Vegas. On ESPN, he is valued as the 9th best guard in his class, and a Top 50 player nationally. That’s what is for certain, but still some speculation with the door wide open for unique possibilities. Amari Bailey, who admittedly is part of the 2022 freshman class, when he announced his commitment to UCLA, hinted at the possibility of reclassifying and coming this fall. This would be a big 1-2-3 punch if it happens, Bailey is another 5-star combo guard. To show how valuable this could mean, he is ranked the best guard in the country, and the 3rd best player nationally. Worst case scenario, Bruins fans have to wait a season for Bailey to come in as a freshman.
Going from a UCLA team that struggled at the end of the season, to go on a run to the Final Four, it’s incredible. This program has a very bright future with the talent coming in, the guys returning, and Cronin leading the way. The Bruins still hold the NCAA record with 11 titles; and after their tournament performance, in a few years that number could go higher.