UCLA, which was one of the previous four at-large teams selected to the NCAA championship and got an 11-seed, became the first team since VCU in 2011 to advance from the First Four into the Final Four, holding on to mad top-seeded Michigan 51-49 on Tuesday night.
“Unreal, man. Unreal. I really like every single one of those men,” UCLA guard Johnny Juzang mentioned. “It’s amazing, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something growing up, you merely dream about. And also to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, which makes it just really wonderful. It’s beautiful. It is beautiful sharing this moment with your own brothers and just great, fantastic people. Incredible.”
The Bruins led for most of the last 25 minutes of the game, but a missed Jaime Jaquez 3-pointer at the last minute and Juzang moving 1-for-2 from the free throw line with six seconds remaining opened the doorway for Michigan.
The Wolverines first travelled to Franz Wagner with 11 seconds left, but he air-balled the go-ahead 3-point effort. After Juzang missed his second free throw, Michigan’s Mike Smith had a pull-up 3-pointer rim outside, and Wagner’s desperation 3 at the buzzer did not fall .
“We have the look, got the chance that we wanted,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Unfortunately there’s not much you can perform with 0.5 seconds, but that shot was a nice little heave. Unfortunately it just didn’t go in. Before that we got an open look and just fell short, but overall, I really like the fact how our men executed down the stretch.”
He left briefly after landing awkwardly after a rally, but he got his right ankle retaped and reentered the match.
Juzang single-handedly kept UCLA from the game through the opening stretch when Michigan had a seven-point lead and the Bruins couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end. Juzang, together with a terrific game program from Cronin, allowed UCLA to claw back in the match and enter halftime with a four-point cushion.
“Just approached it like another game,” Juzang said. “We have been super locked into this tournament. As a player, you don’t like to include pressure to yourself. I understand the entire team was only concerned about’we’re going to leave it out there on the floor and we’re going to give it everything we have got.’ I mean, the shots just happened to go in and teammates were finding me.”
Cronin rotated Cody Riley and Kenneth Nwuba in the center position, helping limit Michigan big man Hunter Dickinson on the inside. The Bruins’ defense forced Michigan to make crime in isolation situations, together with the Wolverines getting hardly any from off-ball movement. And, once again, the pace of this game has been played at UCLA’s favor.
Unfortunately for Michigan, none of that changed in the second half. UCLA jumped out to some nine-point lead before Juzang hurt his arm and Michigan regained the momentum. The Wolverines took a one-point lead on two occasions, but UCLA — like it did after Alabama’s Alex Reese delivered Sunday’s game to overtime with a buzzer-beating 3 — took its own punches and fought .
“To find a way to overcome them with defense the way we did tonight, clearly extremely proud of our team,” Cronin said. “It was only resilience. … I think that stat sheet could get crumbled up tonight.”
When Cronin was chosen to replace Steve Alford the day following the 2019 national championship game, it was not a universally acclaimed hire. There were concerns regarding Cronin’s match, but not only for a Midwest native moving into the West Coast, but in terms of the way the grind-it-out style he used at Cincinnati would work at a blueblood school like UCLA.
“You must find a way to triumph, and these men are having the most fun they have ever had in their life back into that locker room since they won. I told them I was planning to teach them the way to triumph .”
The Bruins ended strong in Cronin’s first season and were a bubble team entering the final days of this 2019-20 season ahead of the NCAA tournament was canceled. And there was lots of optimism entering two, before bad luck hit Westwood. Five-star point shield Daishen Nix chose to visit the G League instead of registering at UCLA; Chris Smith, arguably the team’s best player, tore his ACL in the middle of this season; and Jalen Hill has missed the past two months because of personal factors.
UCLA lost its final four games leading up to the NCAA championship, including a quarterfinal loss from the Pac-12 championship to Oregon State. The Bruins started the NCAA championship down by 13 points to Michigan State late in the first halfat the time, ESPN’s win probability for UCLA was 12.2%.
But the Bruins came back to beat the Spartans in overtime, knocked off BYU and Abilene Christian by double-figures, then pumped off 2-seed Alabama in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight.
“We’ve had our ups and downs during this season, but it’s such a beautiful thing, the way that we’ve come together for this postseason,” Juzang said. “It’s just a sense of everybody’s just so unified. It’s like one unit, and we are only all sharing in one another and rooting for each other. I mean, I think that’s why we’re at this stage and only playing for each other. Only a great deal of love, guy. We are not completed yet. But so far, it has been beautiful, the ups and downs, which makes moments like this even more specific.”
After UCLA’s win over Alabama on Sunday night that sent the Bruins into the Elite Eight, Cronin made it apparent he wasn’t content with no trophy.
“Somebody said,’Well, now you’ve been into a Elite Eight.’ That’s why I came to UCLA,” he said on Sunday. “I’ve got a lot of buddies in the NBA, they make fun of people who have rings which state conference champion. There’s only one. So for me personally, we have got to win more games.”
One down, two more to go. First up will be one of the toughest tests of Cronin’s livelihood: Unbeaten Gonzaga.
At this point, however, nobody is counting out UCLA.