UCLA loses to Gonzaga in overtime at the buzzer

After their last second loss to the USC Trojans in the final regular season game, head coach Mick Cronin of the UCLA Bruins men's basketball team was at a loss for words. The Bruins had fallen in three consecutive games and had slipped from first place in the Pac-12 conference standings to fourth place in the standings. They had blown second half leads in all three games and they were struggling to overcome the loss of key players.

In the game against the Trojans, the Bruins were without leading scorer Johnny Juzang, yet had an eight-point lead with four minutes remaining. "We're playing as well as we can play," said Cronin after the game. "We played really well, that's my opinion. I'm helping them as much as I can help. The goal now is to make sure they don't quit fighting because we're overachieving. They're giving everything they got. My fear is they run out of gas."

The Bruins would go on to lose in the Pac-12 tournament to the Oregon State Beavers in overtime after blowing a 16-point first half lead. The UCLA entered the 68 team NCAA tournament on a four-game losing streak and as the No.11 seed in the Eastern Regional. They would draw a tough First Four, play-in game against the Michigan State Spartans of the Big Ten Conference.

But, despite being down by 14 points in the first half and five points with 29 seconds left in regulation, the Bruins would come-from-behind to beat the Spartans in overtime. They then upset the No.6 seed BYU Cougars and followed that up with a blowout victory over the Abilene Christian Wildcats to reach the Sweet 16. The Bruins again found overtime magic with an upset win over No.2 seed Alabama. The Bruins then held on to upset the No.1 seeded Michigan Wolverines, 51-49, to reach the Final Four.

The overtime magic would end in the Final Four against the top ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, 93-90 on a 40-foot shot at the buzzer by guard Jalen Suggs of the Bulldogs. In one of the most thrilling NCAA Final Four games of recent memory, the Bruins trailed by five points with 57 seconds left in overtime but came back to tie the game on a Juzang putback with 3.3 seconds to tie the score at 90.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few wisely decided to not call a timeout, and forward Corey Kispert inbounded the ball to Suggs, who made his own magic by knocking down the long Hail Mary shot to win the game, and to send the Bulldogs to the championship game against the Baylor Bears. By not calling a timeout, Few did not allow the Bruins to set-up their defense for the final shot.

For pure excitement, the game against Gonzaga was special. There were 15 ties and 19 lead changes, as the Bruins simply would not quit against the talented Bulldog team. Gonzaga was a 14.5-point favorite in this game. The Bruins were underdogs in five of their six NCAA Tournament games. Despite the loss, the Bruins snapped a streak of 27 straight double-digit wins by Gonzaga.

While Juzang will get a lot of the accolades for the Bruins tough performances, there is plenty of credit to go around. Against Gonzaga, forward Cody Riley had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in 42 minutes. Riley was also setting tough picks to free up the Bruins shooters. Point guard Tyger Campbell had 17 points, 7 assists and only one turnover in 36 minutes. In the six games played in the tournament, Campbell had 27 assists and just 7 turnovers.

Forward Jaime Jaquez had 19 points, five rebounds, and four assists in 45 minutes in the Gonzaga game. Juzang had 29 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. The physical and mental toughness these four players showed, along with their teammates, made this this tournament run extraordinary. Cronin asked that they not quit, and they never did.

The Bruins tough, physical matchup zone defense made it difficult for teams to score in the tournament. The Bruins did a great job of controlling the pace of the games and minimizing turnovers. They found matchups on offense that they exploited, and they were not afraid to milk the shot clock, while still managing to get off a good shot before the 30 second shot clock expired.

The Bruins ended up going 5-1 in the NCAA tournament, with three of the games going to overtime. This UCLA squad, as Cronin indicated, gave everything they had and overcame the loss of starting guard Chris Smith, their leading scorer from last season, and the lost of their starting forward Jalen Hill, who left the team due to undisclosed personal reasons. Hill was the leading rebounder for the Bruins last season as well as their second leading scorer.

Bruin fans should be proud of what this team achieved this season and Cronin certainly is: "These guys, they deserved a better ending, but like I told them, as Coach Wooden would say, true greatness is giving your best effort. And that's what they did. My message to our fans is get your season tickets. Let's get this pandemic over with and pack Pauley Pavilion and make UCLA a yearly elite program. That's what I came to UCLA for."

For the Bruins, this was their 19th Final Four appearance. Only the Kentucky Wildcats have more with 20 Final Four appearances. In his second season as the Bruins head coach, Cronin has returned the storied Bruins program back to an elite level and he may just be getting started. Most of the roster should return next season.

Five-star McDonald's All-American Peyton Watson, a 6-foot-7 small forward from Long Beach Poly high school, will join the Bruins in the fall. The Bruins will also add Will McClendon, a four-star shooting guard from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman high school. The Bruins may look to the transfer portal to bring more size to the roster. Hill has decided to quit basketball and Juzang could look to the NBA, although he is not considered a first-round prospect at this time.

Long Beach native Myles Johnson, a center on the Rutgers University basketball team, has entered the transfer portal and has indicated that the Bruins are one of the teams that he may want to join. Johnson made the Big Ten All-Defensive team this season, ranking second in the conference in blocks per game (2.5) and block percentage (10.9%). He led the Big Ten in rebounding percentage. Johnson averaged 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.1 steals in 24.5 minutes per game.

With the release of the final USA Today Coaches poll, the Bruins ended the season as the 7th ranked team in the nation. USC had their highest ranking ever in the poll, finishing as the 9th ranked team in the nation. Three other Pac-12 teams made the top 25 as well: Oregon finished at 17th, Oregon State finished at 20th and Colorado finished as the 23rd ranked team in the nation.

ESPN came out with a Way-Too-Early Top 25 for the 2021-2022 season and the top two teams in the nation were Gonzaga at No.1 and UCLA at No.2. Gonzaga, like UCLA, will have a talented roster next season. After watching these two teams tangle in a classic Final Four matchup in 2021, who would not want to see a rematch of these two basketball powers in the Final Four in 2022?


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