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As Jalen Suggs zoomed down court during the waning seconds of overtime on Saturday night, UCLA coach Mick Cronin practically matched him stride for stride.
Arms flailing and mouth agape, Cronin tried in vain to get the Bruins to run up and trap the ball instead of falling back on defense.
For days, Cronin had drilled into his players’ heads the importance of getting back on defense to stop Gonzaga’s vaunted transition attack, but this scenario called for something different. Only 3.3 seconds remained in overtime after Johnny Juzang’s game-tying put-back, so Suggs likely only had time to call his own number
“I got my guys’ attention late and they came up late,” Cronin said. “It’s not their fault because we trained them to get back, get back, get back, but I knew the clock was short and all he had was a desperation heave.”
You probably know by now that Suggs made UCLA pay dearly for its mental error, that he finished off an all-time great Final Four game with a shot that will forever be part of March lore. Allowed to advance the ball unimpeded past the mid-court stripe, Suggs walked into a 40 footer and banked it in as the buzzer sounded, clinching a 93-90 overtime victory with seismic repercussions.
Most of the nation will remember Suggs’ shot for preserving Gonzaga’s undefeated season, for propelling the Zags within one victory of the program’s first national championship and for setting up one of the most anticipated title games in years. On Monday night, Gonzaga will meet Baylor in a battle between the two teams that have separated themselves since the preseason.
At UCLA, inevitable replays of Suggs’ heroics will undoubtedly evoke different emotions — sadness and heartbreak surely but hopefully not regret. The 11th-seeded Bruins displayed remarkable improvement and mental toughness going from the First Four to the Final Four and then pushing a seemingly invincible opponent to the brink of a massive upset.
“We went out fighting,” Juzang said. “There's no better way. There's no regrets. Just everybody fought to the last play.”
A UCLA team that Cronin believed had Final Four potential before the season lost its top recruit Daishen Nix to the G-League, its leading returning scorer Chris Smith to injury and its most athletic big man Jalen Hill to personal issues. In spite of all that, the Bruins were in position to win the Pac-12 before a late four-game losing streak dashed those hopes and sent them tumbling down the bracket.
Michigan State was supposed to beat UCLA in the First Four. The Bruins instead rallied from a 14-point deficit for a confidence-restoring overtime victory.
Alabama was supposed to beat UCLA in the Sweet 16. The Bruins instead withstood a gut punch of a game-tying 3-pointer, then dominated overtime.
Michigan was supposed to beat UCLA in the Elite Eight. The Bruins instead held the Wolverines without a basket over the game’s final five minutes to eke out a victory.
The most daunting test of all was a Gonzaga team that had only allowed one opponent all season within single digits. Fueled by an unselfish, fast-paced offense that generates layup after layup after layup, the Zags had clobbered their first four NCAA tournament opponents by a total of 96 points.
The competitive spirit that has become the hallmark of this UCLA team was on display throughout a game that featured 15 ties and 19 lead changes. Never did either team lead by more than seven points. Anytime it seemed like Gonzaga was about to pull away, UCLA never flinched and answered with a surge of its own.
It was 64-57 Gonzaga midway through the second half after a Cody Riley flagrant foul gave the Zags a chance to create some breathing room. UCLA answered with a 16-6 surge, putting actual game pressure on the Zags and sending the message that the Bruins were not going anywhere.
In the final two minutes, UCLA again did not crumble after a ridiculous Suggs block erased a Riley dunk attempt and led to a go-ahead Drew Timme transition dunk at the other end. In fact, the Bruins were the ones who had the chance to win in regulation had Juzang not waylaid Timme driving to the basket and been whistled for a charging foul.
UCLA even rallied from a five-point deficit in overtime before Suggs channeled Christian Laettner and Kris Jenkins. The Bruins responded to every punch until Gonzaga finally landed a haymaker with zeroes left on the clock.
On the floor, as Gonzaga players dogpiled in the background, Juzang softly reminded his teammates to keep their heads up. Cronin delivered a similar message in his postgame locker room speech.
“I just told them they've got to let the last shot go,” Cronin said. “As much as they want to be beat down right now and gutted and miserable, they've got to let it go because they're winners. They won. As a coach, all you can do is ask your players to give you everything they've got.”
Cronin, understandably, was in no mood to talk about the future Saturday night, but at some point he’ll acknowledge that UCLA is set up to build on this. Although the Bruins could lose Juzang to the NBA draft, they don’t have a single senior in their rotation and they have a decorated incoming recruiting class highlighted by five-star guard Peyton Watson.
Right now, this loss is nothing but heartache for UCLA. In time, perhaps, it will be remembered as a starting point.
"UCLA, we're not a Cinderella program," Juzang said. "I think that those days are behind us."