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Analysis: Even without raising a banner, UCLA's seniors restored blue-blood fabric of the program

UCLA Bruins guard Tyger Campbell (10) struggles to get a shot off against Gonzaga late in a Sweet 16 game
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell goes airborne to get a shot off against Gonzaga late in a Sweet 16 game Thursday night. Campbell and the Bruins' other seniors suffered another tough loss to the Zags, 79-76. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Hoop Dreams” ends with heartbreak, not championships, its humanity in documenting crushed hopes amid injuries and setbacks making it perhaps the greatest sports movie of all time.

Some might feel the same way about UCLA’s senior class. No, they didn’t get to raise banner No. 12, but these guys were going to give you everything they had every time they took the court while restoring the fabric of a proud program.

There was Jaime Jaquez Jr. late Thursday night inside T-Mobile Arena, powering through fatigue that would have rendered others unconscious to spark a late comeback.

There was Tyger Campbell, fearlessly weaving through players a foot taller to find space for his floating jumpers.

There was David Singleton, making two three-pointers in a bid to slay this NCAA tournament Goliath.

The toughest part of injury-depleted UCLA’s 79-76 loss to Gonzaga on another crazy shot by the Zags in a West Region semifinal wasn’t the end of a season. It was the end of an era.

These seniors fought through serious injuries. They built a culture centered on toughness and accountability. They made it to one Final Four and three Sweet 16s.

And now they won’t take the court together as Bruins again. They won’t hear the roars of the fans who fell in love with UCLA basketball anew because of them. They won’t feel the admiration of the old coaches they lured back to the program, Ben Howland now a regular at Pauley Pavilion and Jim Harrick watching from several rows behind the team bench Thursday.

Even if Campbell decides to come back for a sixth season and Jaquez stuns everyone by returning after becoming Pac-12 player of the year, Singleton has played his record 164th and final game as a Bruin.

As he sat in front of his locker a half an hour after the game Thursday, his eyes puffy, Singleton had not grasped the finality of it all.

“I’ve still got the jersey on,” he said, “so no, it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

Gonzaga's Drew Timme (2) celebrates as UCLA's David Singleton (34) runs down the court.
Gonzaga's Drew Timme (2) celebrates as UCLA's David Singleton (34) runs down the court Thursday night. Singleton played his record 164th and final game as a Bruin. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On the other side of a locker room whose silence was pierced only by reporters’ questions, Campbell sounded a similar refrain when asked whether it was impossible to process not playing another game with this group.

“Uh, yeah,” Campbell said. “Yeah. Yes, sir.”

Wearing a stunned expression, Jaquez couldn’t begin to describe the hurt he felt.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still processing it, I guess, the game and everything right now.”

Their coach found the words his players lacked, Mick Cronin telling his team he was proud it didn’t flinch despite being down two starters.

“I mean, you lose two of the best players in the Pac-12, defensive player of the year, freshman of the year,” Cronin said, referring to Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona, “we still expect to win.”

They had a chance until the final second thanks in large part to the seniors’ loyalty and their relentless drive to maximize their abilities.

“I have great respect for those three because when you watch them play you don't think, well, he should be better than that,” Cronin said. “When you watch Dave Singleton and you see he's limited athletically, and you see that he gets everything he can out of his body and his talent.

“Tyger Campbell, unbelievable career. You can't get any more out of his body and his God-given things that he has that he can't change. He totally maxes it out.

“And Jaime Jaquez, same thing. Came in to us as a human turnover the first two months. And I just played him because he was as crazy as me. We were losing, he was pissed. I said, ‘I can build a program with this guy because he's got heart.’ Now look at him.”

Jaquez is probably headed to the NBA after passing Bill Walton on the way to moving into the No. 8 spot on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,802 points. When Jaquez said he didn’t know what to say about overtaking the legendary Bruin last weekend, Cronin patted him on the shoulder and added, with a smile, “Come back for a fifth year.”

Nice try, coach.

Campbell is No. 2 on UCLA’s all-time assist list with 655, trailing only Pooh Richardson (833). He walked with Jaquez, Singleton, Kenneth Nwuba and Russell Stong IV on senior night but has not indicated whether he might return next season. Campbell, Jaquez and Nwuba each have one more season of eligibility remaining because of the COVID-19 interrupted season of 2019-20.

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) walks off the court after the Bruins lost to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on March 23, 2023.
UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) walks off the court after the Bruins lost to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. He is probably headed to the NBA. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA’s roster for the 2023-24 season could look almost identical … or drastically different. Clark (lower leg) and Bona (shoulder) are recovering from significant injuries that could entice them to return for another college season to show NBA teams they are ready for the next level. Freshman Amari Bailey could come back even after his recent breakthrough, becoming a supercharged version of Johnny Juzang with a constant green light to shoot.

There’s also a freshman class that includes Sebastian Mack, Devin Williams and Brandon Williams (no relation) that is completely on brand for what its coach wants. When Cronin told Mack, a 6-foot-3 combo guard from Las Vegas, that the Bruins needed his shooting, Mack responded, “I’m coming to play defense and win, coach.”

A few more players could arrive through the transfer portal or an increasingly deep pool of international prospects, bolstering the Bruins in their bid to remain a top-10 team.

They’ll just never be this team again.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.