UCLA stifles Saint Mary's, advances to Sweet 16 despite key injury
Exasperated with his team’s lethargic start to its second-round NCAA men's tournament game against Saint Mary’s, UCLA coach Mick Cronin offered his players a helpful suggestion.
“We might want to try playing defense,” he told reporter Andy Katz during a first-half sideline interview.
That UCLA took that idea to heart is the biggest reason the fourth-seeded Bruins are Sweet 16-bound for the second straight season. They held typically efficient St. Mary’s without a field goal for the next nine minutes and maintained that level of defensive intensity the rest of the game, enabling them to methodically pull away on Saturday evening for a 72-56 victory.
Comfortably tossing aside St. Mary’s serves as a reminder that UCLA cannot be discounted as a threat to emerge from the East Region and return to the Final Four for the second straight year. This was a fifth-seeded Gaels team that won 26 games, handed Gonzaga one of its only three losses and on Thursday blitzed previously surging Indiana by 29 points.
About the only thing that went wrong for UCLA on Saturday was the sight of second-leading scorer Jaime Jaquez writhing on the ground with eight minutes left in the second half after rolling his right ankle. Jaquez, who has dealt with lingering right ankle injuries all season, required help walking off the floor and did not return to the game.
Jaime Jaquez's ankle injury pic.twitter.com/UEVA6NZHB7
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Jaquez's team-high 15 points were a big reason UCLA led by eight when he left the game, but the Bruins were able to increase their lead without him. By the time Jaquez returned to the UCLA bench with no right shoe on and an ice bag around his ankle, the Bruins led by double figures and the slow-paced Gaels were running out of time to mount a rally.
UCLA won't play again until Friday when it meets North Carolina in a Sweet 16 showdown between two of college basketball's biggest brands. Whether Jaquez will play against the Tar Heels is unclear, but Cronin said, "Trust me, if he can walk, he'll play."
"Most guys that have what he has would have sat the rest of the season out," Cronin told reporters. "He's had so many sprained ankles, I don't know how much he can sprain it anymore."
No matter what happens with Jaquez, UCLA will need to duplicate Saturday's defensive effort to advance deeper into the tournament. St. Mary's shot 40.8 percent from the field and struggled to generate open looks against UCLA's quick-rotating man-to-man defense.
UCLA never trailed in the second half and never led by fewer than seven in the game's final 10 minutes.