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Madness! UCLA Stages Comeback to Knock Off Michigan State, 86-80, in the First Four
All of the blown leads prepared the Bruins to stage a comeback of their own.
Excuse me a moment while I catch my breath.
Ok, so I am willing to entertain the idea that Mick Cronin was playing 4D chess the past few weeks. After all, how else do you explain a UCLA Bruins team, which had blown four-straight games heading into the tournament and was down two of their best players, morphing back into the world-beaters that ran roughshod over the Pac-12 to end last season at the exact moment that they needed it?
This team was dead in the water at halftime, down 11 only thanks to the heroics of Jaime Jaquez, and yet they fought and clawed and forced their way back into this game in the second half, ultimately prevailing in overtime over the Michigan State Spartans by the final score of 86-80.
Let me repeat that really quickly: UCLA beat the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament! We’re still alive!
Yet I’m at a loss for words over the entire thing because so much of it featured the same frustrating play we’d seen from the Bruins over the past few weeks. Tyger Campbell was unplayable for the vast majority of this game, joined by Cody Riley for a rough on-court tandem. Johnny Juzang had a microcosm of his season, alternating between excellent individual plays and lackadaisical defense at the drop of a hat. Jules Bernard was quiet. David Singleton, Jaylen Clark, and Travis Etienne could barely see the court. It was like the Bruins and Mick Cronin were playing the hits for us one last time before a frustrating offseason could begin.
And then things started to shift. Juzang started playing smarter basketball. Bernard became more aggressive. Clark and Singleton got to play more as UCLA shifted to a smaller lineup to account for Riley being in foul trouble. Michigan State, which was hitting everything under the sun in the first half, began to revert to the poor shooting team they had been all season. The 50-50 balls, which had all gone to the Spartans, started shifting to being true 50-50s.
Everything started to work, and suddenly the Bruins found themselves one defensive possession away from forcing overtime, which they got when Jules Bernard played excellent individual defense on Michigan State’s Aaron Henry, forcing overtime.
In overtime, Johnny Juzang took over. He hit two early shots to give UCLA a quick four-point lead and put all kinds of pressure on the Spartans, who were never able to recover. Cody Riley played his best five minutes of the game in overtime, Jaylen Clark made a man’s rebound in the final minute, and all of the negative energy of the last few weeks melted away as the Bruins put away a good team late.
If you have to talk about individual heroes, then the conversation has to begin and end with Jaime Jaquez. Clearly, the last week of rest did Jaquez some good, because he played what was easily his best game of the season, rising to the occasion to the tune of 27 points on 11-20 shooting while playing tough defense. The Bruins would not have been in this game had Jaquez not shouldered the load early and kept the team within striking distance. It was a perfect NCAA Tournament debut for Jaquez, who should have many great performances over the next few years.
Let’s also give credit to Mick Cronin, who did not have a perfect game (seriously, I love the guy, but Kenneth Nwuba should not be seeing the court in the NCAA Tournament at this point) but made a fantastic adjustment late to seize momentum. By going small and putting Jaylen Clark at the 5, Cronin was able to catch the Spartans off-guard and grab momentum, while opening the game up more for Juzang and Bernard to get going offensively. The shift even led to Tyger Campbell finally getting into a groove, which is an excellent sign going forward.
But if there is anything we should take away from this game, it is the heart of this team. It would have been completely understandable given the circumstances had the Bruins folded at halftime, but that didn’t happen. The Bruins instead fought back, got tough, and offered an incredible reminder of last year’s never-say-die squad. I don’t think the Bruins will ultimately win this tournament, but at this point you can’t count them out of any game.
That’s all you can ask for. This is March, after all.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with 27 points. Jules Bernard led the Bruins with eight rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led the team with four assists. Aaron Henry led the Spartans with 16 points.
Player of the Game: Jaime Jaquez - Was there any doubt? Jaquez one of many Bruins that made their NCAA Tournament debut in this game, and he made up for last year’s lost trip in a major way. Jaquez was the best player for the Bruins by far, putting up 27 points, four rebounds, two assists, a block, and playing some fantastic defense in the process.
The Flying Js - Jaquez going off allowed for Johnny Juzang to have a strong supporting game on offense, putting up 23 points including four in overtime before sustaining an ankle injury late (he was walking around and celebrating with the team at the end, so it may just be minor). Jules Bernard also got into the act, putting up 11 points while playing excellent individual defense. Could this trio have played better? Absolutely, but they came through when it mattered, which is all that matters this time of the year.
Heart of a Champion - The Bruins may have faded late this season, thus denying themselves of a Pac-12 regular-season championship, but this game served as a reminder that the heart of this team should never be in question. Talent wins games, but heart wins championships, and over the next few years there should be no doubt that this team has the heart required to be great.
The Bruins will get a day off before playing against BYU on Saturday at 6:40 PM PT.