Sweet Again! UCLA Puts Together Complete Performance to Beat St. Mary's 72-56
The real UCLA Bruins arrived at the perfect time.
Well, that was certainly a 180 from Thursday night.
UCLA played a poor game Thursday night against Akron, the kind of game that scares fans into thinking this would be a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament. They then turned around and had the kind of performance that reminds you that this team was a preseason favorite for a reason, picking apart an excellent St. Mary’s defense to the tune of 56.5% shooting while holding the Gaels to 40.8%, which was more than enough for the Bruins to walk away with a 72-56 victory and a spot in the Sweet 16.
This was UCLA at its best. It starts with the defense, which was shaky to start the game but quickly locked into form, at one point holding the Gaels without a field goal for over eight minutes. Credit to Coach Mick Cronin for making a schematic adjustment, moving Cody Riley off of Gaels big Matthias Tass, and instead sticking Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard on that assignment. The change completely disrupted St. Mary’s plan of attack by taking Tass out of the pick-and-roll, which also allowed Riley to be more aggressive in his defense on the perimeter. Riley found himself matched up on Gaels guard Tommy Kuhse and had the best defensive game….probably of his career if we’re being honest. We also saw excellent minutes from Peyton Watson, Myles Johnson, and Jaylen Clark that really served to shut down the Gaels.
The defensive effort also allowed the offense time to get into a rhythm, and once the Bruins got going, they became tough to start. It started with Jaime Jaquez, who was unguardable for most of the first half en route to 15 points on 6-11 shooting (more on him in a bit). Jaime was able to carry the offensive load until Jules Bernard was able to take over for a stretch, scoring eight of his 14 points in the span of two minutes. Then Johnny Juzang finally arrived at the NCAA Tournament, hitting four straight shots en route to 14 points as well. All throughout, Tyger Campbell was able to supplement the offense with his usual mix of sudden-stop jumpers and drawn fouls, and once Jaime left with an ankle injury he was able to take over for good, ending up with a team-high 16 points. Oh, and let’s not forget Cody Riley, who again had his best game of the season by far, going 3-4 from the field for nine points, including a dagger three with a few minutes remaining.\
This was the UCLA team many expected from the start of the year. The Bruins found success last tournament by grinding opponents down and making them play great basketball for 40 minutes and capitalizing as soon as those opponents made a mistake. St. Mary’s played good basketball for about 30 minutes, but the failure to play 40 minutes is what cost them because UCLA will hit you with wave after wave of great play. This team is deeper than the one that took college basketball by storm last year, which should be terrifying for everyone left.
The elephant in the room now is, of course, the status of Jaime Jaquez. Jaquez came down awkwardly and rolled his ankle with about six minutes to go in this game. He ultimately walked off the court under his own power, but he was clearly in a lot of pain and went back down to the ground as soon as he got into the tunnel. Jaquez ended up spending the rest of the game at the end of the bench, reportedly because the locker room was so far down the tunnel that it made more sense to get worked on at that spot, but there was never a real question of whether he was going to come back into the game (and the Bruins made sure that there would not be a question by extending the lead with Jaime out). Jaquez has been UCLA’s best player for a month now, and his status is going to be the biggest question for the next week. UCLA announced that Jaquez will be day-to-day, and Mick Cronin mentioned in the postgame that if he can walk then Jaime will likely play. We also have sources that indicated that Jaime’s ankle did not look as bad as the earlier injury that kept him out for a game this year, which is a good sign as well. Still, Bruin fans will likely be nervous for the next week.
At the end of the day, though, UCLA has done what it needed to do to have a successful season. We might joke about it, but the Sweet 16 is a big accomplishment, and the best you should realistically hope for each season is to make it this far so that you have a shot to do more. UCLA has made it to the Sweet 16, and in the process has found itself with a path to the Final Four that was more favorable than it was when the tournament began: both #1 seed Baylor and #2 seed Kentucky have been eliminated already, with #3 seed Purdue playing tomorrow. North Carolina has been hot in recent weeks and will provide a threat, but you have to like UCLA’s chances with a week to prepare. Oh, and Gonzaga is in a dog fight with Memphis as we speak. This time of year, you have to put yourself in position to be in position, and the Bruins are most definitely in position.
Tyger Campbell led the Bruins with 16 points and tied Jules Bernard for the team lead with four assists. Johnny Juzang led the team with eight rebounds. Logan Johnson led the Gaels with 18 points.
Player of the Game: Cody Riley - Long have I bemoaned the play of Cody Riley this year; ever since his return from injury, Riley has been wildly inconsistent, and his defense has been sub-replacement level. If anything, his poor play in major minutes contributed to the close nature of the game against Akron on Tuesday. So of course Riley would turn around and have his best game of the season in the biggest moment yet. Riley had nine points on an efficient 3-4 shooting from the field, but it was his defense that really stood out. St. Mary’s aggressively hunted him in the pick-and-roll and, after a few fraught opening minutes, Riley held his own. If Riley can keep this level of play up for the rest of the tournament, then you have to like UCLA’s chances in every game going forward.
Jaquez Ankle Watch - Jaime was again UCLA’s best player on the court for a majority of the game. The problem is he ultimately had to leave the game after injuring his ankle. Jaquez’s status will be the big question of the week for UCLA, and if he is unavailable then it will be much harder to see this run ending where Bruins fans would ultimately want it to.
The Return of Johnny Buckets? - Juzang’s shooting has been the topic of discussion in recent weeks, as he has been in the middle of the worst shooting slump in his career. But in the second half of this game, Juzang reminded everyone of the player that took over last year’s March Madness, hitting four straight shots en route to a 6-11 shooting night. Juzang never lacks for confidence, but for the first time in awhile, his shot looked comfortable, as if he was moving past his ankle injury from a mental standpoint. With Jaquez’s injury, UCLA would love to have Juzang return to form to help carry the offensive load.
The Bruins will now take on the North Carolina Tarheels in the Sweet 16. This game was originally scheduled for this past December, but UCLA got COVID the week beforehand and was forced to cancel. North Carolina is much improved from where they were early in the season, so this will be a battle. The game is currently scheduled for Friday.