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Johnny Juzang pulled his teammates tight, arms around each other’s shoulders, no one wanting to budge. There were no tears, only words of appreciation in the midcourt huddle for this UCLA team and what it had improbably achieved, advancing from the First Four to the Final Four before losing to Gonzaga on a miracle shot at the end of overtime.
Over the next three months, some Bruins fans feared it might have been Juzang’s final act in college.
The sophomore shooting guard had shot his way up NBA draft boards with a breakthrough scoring spree in the NCAA tournament, eventually cracking the first round in some mock drafts.
Percolating in his mind all the while was another enticing opportunity: a chance for more collegiate glory. Juzang announced Wednesday that he would return to UCLA next season, bolstering a roster that could make the Bruins a consensus top-five team nationally as well as a trendy pick to win their first national championship since 1995.
"Going through the draft process has been an amazing experience," Juzang said as part of an Instagram post in which he revealed his decision with the phrase “3'S BACK 4'S UP,” referring to his jersey number followed by the Bruin motto. "I was blessed to connect with great people, learn and grow, and get a feel for life at the next level. I want to thank everybody who has helped me in this process, including my family, trainers, school and especially my Dad, who helped for countless hours!
"Westwood, I can't wait to go to war! We've got a team full of warriors and there's nobody I'd rather fight beside. With coach [Mick] Cronin and our staff, I'm very excited for this season. Let's do something special!"
The move wasn’t entirely surprising after Juzang struggled in a few NBA combine games, partially offsetting the display of elite shot-making he had unleashed on college basketball’s biggest stage. The 6-foot-6 Juzang averaged 22.8 points over six NCAA tournament games while making 50.9% of his shots.
His 137 points in one NCAA tournament were second in school history, trailing only Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich’s 140 points over four games in the 1965 tournament that the Bruins capped by beating Michigan in the championship. Now Juzang will get the chance to top that.
“We are very excited Johnny will be returning to UCLA," Cronin said in a statement. "Johnny was an important addition to our team last year. He is a great player and an excellent teammate. Obviously, we had a special run in March and Johnny, playing on a sprained ankle, was magnificent along with his teammates. We are all excited to get back to work and build on our success.”
Juzang’s decision removes the lingering mystery surrounding next season’s roster. Chris Smith has said he will commence his professional career, but redshirt junior forward Cody Riley announced Wednesday that he would return for another college season, strengthening the team's interior ranks.
There was no overstating Riley’s value to the Bruins last season, particularly after fellow power forward Jalen Hill departed the team in early February because of anxiety and depression. Riley became the team’s primary big man on its way to the Final Four, blocking four shots during a victory over Alabama and logging a double-double against Gonzaga in an epic national semifinal.
The return of Juzang could result in a happy headache for Cronin, leaving less playing time to distribute at a wing position where the team is loaded with incoming recruits Peyton Watson and Will McClendon as well as returning players David Singleton, Jules Bernard and Jake Kyman.
In his first season with the Bruins, Juzang averaged a team-leading 16 points on 44.1% shooting — including 35.3% on his three-pointers — to go with 4.1 rebounds after missing the first four games while recovering from a stress reaction in his right foot.
The former Studio City Harvard-Westlake High standout’s rise from benchwarmer in one season at Kentucky to national phenom after transferring to UCLA and gaining immediate eligibility wasn’t instantaneous.
Juzang flashed his scoring potential in his Bruins debut, making four of six shots on the way to 10 points in only 20 minutes against San Diego, before enduring an extended shooting slump. He had made 14 of 45 three-pointers (31.1%) before a breakthrough against Stanford in which he sunk five of eight.
There were more ups (a career-high 32 points against Washington) and downs (13 points on six-for-21 shooting against USC) to come before the NCAA tournament. That’s where Juzang solidified himself as a star, making back-to-back jumpers to start overtime as the Bruins completed their comeback over Michigan State in the First Four game.
Juzang returned from an ankle injury suffered at the end of that game to scorch Brigham Young for 27 points and shrugged off a clunker in which he made only five of 18 shots against Alabama by saving his best two performances for last. He returned from another ankle injury to score 28 points, including UCLA’s final basket and free throw, in a taut 51-49 victory over Michigan that sent the Bruins into the Final Four.
Against Gonzaga, Juzang scored 29 points and made 12 of 28 shots, including a putback of his own miss with 3.3 seconds left in overtime. It was a classic game that appeared destined for another overtime before Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs banked in a 40-footer at the buzzer, prompting that impromptu Bruins huddle in what amounted to a farewell for Juzang.
“There's no regrets,” Juzang said afterward. “Just everybody fought to the last play and the last shot is the last shot. But just so grateful to call these guys teammates.”
Much to the relief of Bruins fans everywhere, that will remain the case for one more season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.