Plaschke: UCLA didn't deserve to get Laettnered after playing like champions vs. Gonzaga

UCLA guards Johnny Juzang (3) and Jaime Jaquez Jr. walk off the court after losing in overtime to Gonzaga in the Final Four.
UCLA's Johnny Juzang (3) and Jaime Jaquez Jr. walk off the court after losing to Gonzaga on a last-second shot in overtime. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

No way. That ball didn’t go in. That shot didn’t happen. That shot couldn’t happen.

No way. Are you kidding me? Jalen Suggs of Gonzaga did not just dribble the ball downcourt and throw up a 40-foot prayer over UCLA’s David Singleton and watch it bank into the basket for the victory as the buzzer sounded.

No way. The ball banked in? The shot counted? The outmanned Bruins fought their jerseys off against the unbeaten Bulldogs on Saturday night and still lost a national semifinal overtime game, 93-90?

On a Hail Mary? Good heavens.

It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. UCLA deserved better. In one of the best games in NCAA tournament history, on the verge of the biggest tournament upset in UCLA history, the Bruins did not deserve to lose on one of the most unlikely final shots in tournament history.

The Bruins did not deserve to get Laettnered.

Remember when Duke’s Christian Laettner hit the last-second shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final in what was then considered the greatest college basketball game ever?

This was that shot, that moment, that miracle.

Only this time, Bruins fans weren’t watching it, they were living it. This time, occurring at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, the moment was even more monumental. This time it was deeper in the tournament, farther from the basket, and crazy off the glass.

This time it was UCLA’s Johnny Juzang tying the game moments earlier with a fighting follow-up layup, then Suggs taking over with three seconds remaining.

Dribble, dribble, dribble…shot…bank.

Bank? Bank? Bank?

“We made a lucky one at the end,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few acknowledged.

Good for Gonzaga, which advances to Monday’s title game against Baylor with a chance to make history. The 31-0 Bulldogs have a chance to become the first college basketball team in 45 years to finish the season unbeaten. Gonzaga has not lost in more than a year. It has 35 straight wins over two seasons. The Bulldogs are a great team that is also now a magical team.

But you know something? Good for UCLA too.

The 11th-seeded Bruins’ attempt to become the first double-digit seed to get to a title game fell one miracle short, but they went down swinging. On the 26th anniversary of their last championship, they played like champions.

They were the biggest underdogs in modern Final Four history — 14½ points — yet they pushed Gonzaga to the limit. This was only the second time this year anybody had even come within double digits of the Bulldogs, and the Bruins consistently had them on the ropes until the red backboard light threw their season into darkness.

In the middle of all the buzzer-beating madness, as the Bulldogs raced and danced and bounced across the court, the Bruins held their ground for one last time, huddling up on the middle of the court, mourning and sticking together.

“Jalen makes an incredible shot, didn’t go our way, but, immediately, we come together, we weren’t going to let anybody have their heads down,” Juzang said. “There’s no other way we’d rather go out; we went out fighting. … There’s no better way, there’s no regrets, just everybody fought until the last play.”

Before the game, Bill Walton sent the team a video message in which he said, “Do your best, that’ll be enough, you’re already champions, you are UCLA.”

He was right. That’s who they were. That’s how they played. They were UCLA basketball at its finest, and the fact that it eventually ended in tears and sobbing hugs and jerseys pulled over heads didn't change that.

“I just told them they got to let the last shot go, and as much as they want to be down right now and gutted and miserable, they’ve got to let it go, because they’re winners,” coach Mick Cronin said. “As a coach all you can do is ask your players to give you everything they got, and come on guys, all you’ve got to do is watch, to see a team improve the way we improved.”

From losing their final four games before the NCAA tournament to winning a First Four game after trailing Michigan State by 14 points to surviving two overtimes and to end up putting Gonzaga on the brink? Yeah, it was something to see.

Cronin added, “These guys, they deserved a better ending, but like I told them, as Coach Wooden would say, true greatness is giving your best effort, and that’s what they did.”

After he hit the shot, Suggs told CBS, “It’s crazy, I can’t find the words right now.” It’s crazy how UCLA almost pulled this off.

After trading blow for blow with the high-powered Bulldogs for nearly 40 minutes, the Bruins sent it to overtime with defense. With the score tied in the final minute of regulation, Cody Riley blocked a Suggs layup attempt out of bounds, then the suffocating Bruins pressure forced a long three-point attempt by Corey Kispert that bounced out.

Juzang tried to win the game but was hit with a charging call against collapsing Drew Timme while driving the lane in the final seconds. The video replay showed it was the right call, even if UCLA will spend the summer wondering about it. If nothing else, the Bruins went down attacking the basket.

“I was hoping they’d call a block. … Sometimes things aren’t meant to be,” Cronin said.

In the overtime, they couldn’t stop Timme inside and trailed by five with 57 seconds left, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit a clutch three-pointer, and Juzang hit that follow shot, and the game was seemingly going to double overtime.

Then — a bank shot, really? — it was over.

Cronin wanted to trap Suggs, but he didn’t have a timeout to set his defense, and he couldn’t direct his players in time.

“I got their attention late, and they came to him late, and it’s not their fault, because we trained them to get back,” Cronin said.

There’s no blame here, only credit for an incredible run that could be only just beginning.

Almost all the team in uniform Saturday night, with the possible exception of Juzang, is probably coming back next year, and they could be joined by injured top scorer Chris Smith and the absent Jalen Hill. They will also add two top-50 recruits, five-star small forward Peyton Watson from Long Beach Poly plus shooting guard Will McClendon from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman.

“You know, it’s tough, I’m not going to lie; we feel like we could have done it all, but still at the same time, I know I can say I did realize what an amazing group this was,” Juzang said, adding, “What I realized walking off the court was just how incredible this group was, and just the brotherhood and camaraderie and cohesion, just everything about this group, man, the heart that’s really it, the heart of this group.”

On a night the UCLA basketball heart was broken, it was renewed, and beats on.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.