UCLA, once known as one of the blue bloods in college basketball dating back to the legendary John Wooden days, has advanced to the Final Four looking a lot more like a blue-collar team.
The Bruins, the No. 11 seed in the East Region, overcame No. 1 seed Michigan in a scintillating 51-49 win Tuesday night in the East Region final at Lucas Oil Stadium and advanced to its first Final Four since 2008.
A national semifinal game against 30-0 Gonzaga, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, awaits Saturday at 8:34 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The final moments of Tuesday’s game were frenetic. It had been clear for much of the game that this wasn’t going to be decided until the final possession, and that’s exactly how it played out.
The final result wasn’t official until a Franz Wagner 3-point shot at the buzzer that, if it had gone in would have won the game for Michigan, bounced off the backboard and not in the basket.
After UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, who led all scorers with 28 points, made just one of two free throws with a one-point Bruins lead and 6.3 seconds remaining, Michigan, with six seconds remaining, had a chance to tie the game and force overtime or win it.
Mike Smith missed a 3-point try on a good look and the ball went out of bounds off UCLA’s Jalen Clark with five-tenths of a second remaining. That set up the last-ditch attempt by Wagner.
“These guys get all the credit,’’ UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of his players. “Unbelievable heart and toughness. Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it. Obviously, our next assignment [Gonzaga] is tough, but their resilience is unbelievable to stop such a great team like Michigan.
“I’ve been trying to teach these guys how to win. Winners know how to win. They don’t worry about offensive struggles. They believe. They just keep defending, keep playing with heart, keep playing with toughness. Michigan is an elite team. It was going to be hard to score all night. We knew we had to keep defending.’’
So, it was fitting that UCLA won this game on the final play playing defense.
For a team so rich with NCAA Tournament history, this ride has been one of the most remarkable and rewarding for UCLA, which began this journey playing a First Four game against Michigan State to simply get into the 64-team bracket.
Oh yes, it trailed Michigan State by as many as 14 points in that game. Tuesday night was UCLA’s fifth win of this NCAA Tournament. Not bad for a team that lost its final four games of its conference schedule season.
With his team trailing Michigan State by 11 at the half in that play-in game, UCLA coach Mick Cronin, known for being brutally honest, told his players in no uncertain terms at halftime that they were soft.
Apparently, he touched a nerve, because you can make the argument that UCLA has been the toughest team in this tournament considering where it came from.
The Bruins (22-9) were led on Tuesday night by a virtuoso performance from Juzang, who scored 18 of his team’s 27 points in the first half.
With the Bruins looking nervous and rattled by the Michigan defense, scoring just four points in the first 10½ minutes, Juzang got hot and saved them with a flurry of baskets.
UCLA’s 27-23 lead at the half represented only the first time in this tournament Michigan trailed after the first 20 minutes. Michigan entered the game with a 2-3 record this season when trailing at the half.
Only three UCLA players scored in the first half, which usually wouldn’t be considered a good thing, but 18 of them came from Juzang, who shot 8-of-10 from the field.
Tyger Campbell had five points and Jaime Jaquez had four.
Michigan was led by Brandon Johns Jr.’s eight points. Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks had four points each.
Michigan, thanks to a 9-0 run, took control early, opening an 11-4 lead while UCLA’s shooting started cold.
But the Bruins found their footing and swag and rallied, taking an 18-17 lead with 3:40 remaining on two Jaquez free throws. At that point, UCLA was on a 14-6 run. By the end of the half, UCLA had closed it out on a 23-12 run after trailing 11-4.