INDIANAPOLIS — First Four to Final Four.
UCLA, which was one of the last four at-large teams selected to the NCAA tournament and earned an 11-seed, became the first team since VCU in 2011 to advance from the First Four to the Final Four, holding on to upset top-seeded Michigan 51-49 on Tuesday night.
The Bruins move on to face overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday.
“Unreal, man. Unreal. I love every single one of these guys,” UCLA guard Johnny Juzang said. “It’s incredible, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something growing up, you just dream about. And to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, makes it just so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful sharing this moment with your brothers and just great, great people. Incredible.”
The Bruins led for most of the final 25 minutes of the game, but a missed Jaime Jaquez 3-pointer in the final minute and Juzang going 1-for-2 from the free throw line with six seconds left the door open for Michigan.
The Wolverines first went to Franz Wagner with 11 seconds left, but he airballed the go-ahead 3-point attempt. After Juzang missed his second free throw, Michigan’s Mike Smith had a pull-up 3-pointer rim out, and Wagner’s desperation 3 at the buzzer didn’t fall either.
“We got the look, got the shot that we wanted,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Unfortunately there’s not much you can do 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 love the fact how our guys executed down the stretch.”
Juzang was UCLA’s main source of offense for most of Tuesday night, scoring 14 of the Bruins’ first 16 points and finishing with 28 points. He left briefly after landing awkwardly following a rebound, but he got his right ankle re-taped and re-entered the game.
Juzang single-handedly kept UCLA in the game during the opening stretch of the game when Michigan had a seven-point lead and the Bruins couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end. Juzang, combined with a terrific gameplan from Cronin, enabled UCLA to claw back into the game and enter halftime with a four-point cushion.
“Just approached it like another game,” Juzang said. “We’ve been super locked into this tournament. As a player, you don’t like to add pressure to yourself. I know the whole team was just worried about ‘we’re going to leave it out there on the floor and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.’ I mean, the shots just happened to go in and teammates were finding me.”
Cronin rotated Cody Riley and Kenneth Nwuba at the center position, helping limit Hunter Dickinson on the interior. The Bruins’ defense forced Michigan to create offense in isolation situations, with the Wolverines getting very little from off-ball movement. And, once again, the pace of the game was being played in UCLA’s favor.
Unfortunately for Michigan, none of that changed in the second half. UCLA jumped out to a nine-point lead before Juzang hurt his ankle 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 sent Sunday’s game to overtime with a buzzer-beating 3 — took their punches and fought back.
“To find a way to beat them with defense the way we did tonight, obviously extremely proud of our team,” Cronin said. “It was just resilience. … I think that stat sheet can get crumbled up tonight.”
When Cronin was picked to replace Steve Alford the day after the 2019 national championship game, it wasn’t a universally acclaimed hire. There were questions about Cronin’s fit, not only for a Midwest native moving to the West coast, but in terms of how the grind-it-out style he used at Cincinnati would work at a blueblood school like UCLA.
“April 9th, 2019, I told you, I spell fun W-I-N,” Cronin said. “You have to find a way to win and these guys are having the most fun they have ever had in their life back in that locker room because they won. I told them I was going to teach them how to win.”
The Bruins finished strong in Cronin’s first season and were a bubble team entering the final days of the season before the NCAA tournament was canceled. And there was plenty of optimism entering Year 2, before bad luck hit Westwood. Five-star point guard Daishen Nix opted to go to the G League instead of enrolling at UCLA; Chris Smith, arguably the team’s best player, tore his ACL in the middle of the season; and Jalen Hill has missed the last two months due to personal reasons.
UCLA lost its last four games leading up to the NCAA tournament, including a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon State. The Bruins started the NCAA tournament down by 13 points to Michigan State late in the first half; at 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 knocked off 2-seed Alabama in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight.
“We’ve had our ups and downs during the season, but it’s such a beautiful thing, the way that we have come together for this postseason,” Juzang said. “It’s just a feeling of everybody’s just so unified. It’s like one unit, and we’re just all sharing in each other and rooting for each other. I mean, I think that’s why we’re at this point and just playing for each other. Just a lot of love, man. We’re not done yet. But so far, it’s been beautiful, the ups and downs, and that makes moments like this even more special.”
After UCLA’s win over Alabama on Sunday night that sent the Bruins to the Elite Eight, Cronin made it clear he wasn’t content without a trophy.
“Somebody said, ‘Well, now you’ve been to an Elite Eight.’ That’s not why I came to UCLA,” he said on Sunday. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the NBA, they make fun of people that have rings that say conference champion. There’s only one. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion. So for me, we’ve got to win three more games.”
One down, two more to go. First up will be one of the toughest tests of Cronin’s career: Unbeaten Gonzaga.
At this point, though, nobody is counting out UCLA.