Ten days later, UCLA is 40 minutes from the Final Four.
The Bruins, a No.11 seed, continued their pseudo-Cinderella Sunday night, beating No.2 Alabama in overtime 88-78. They become the second First Four team to upgrade to the Elite Eight – and the first since VCU went to the Final Four in 2011. This also ensured that the Pac-12 will have three teams competing in the Elite Eight for the first time. times since 2001..
“Someone said, ‘Well, now you’ve been in an Elite Eight.’ That’s not the reason I came to UCLA, ”said coach Mick Cronin. “I have a lot of friends in the NBA, they laugh at people with rings that say conference champion. There is only one. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion. So for me we have to win three more games. ”
Led by hot shots from Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, UCLA took an 11-point lead at halftime – an advantage that evaporated in the first five minutes of the second half, thanks to an 11-0 run by Alabama. Despite Crimson Tide’s return to the game, things were still tilted in the direction of UCLA. The competition was played mostly on a half court, limiting Alabama’s transition opportunities. The Crimson Tides were also struggling with the perimeter.
The final minutes of settlement went back and forth, but two missed free throws by Alabama’s Herbert Jones seemed to seal UCLA’s victory. David Singleton buried two free throws with four seconds left to give UCLA a three-point lead.
Alabama inflicted the ball on Jahvon Quinerly, but instead of fouling him, UCLA forced him to give up the ball – and he found an open Alex Reese in the middle of the floor. Reese caught the pass, turned and buried a 28-footer with 0.4 seconds left to send him into overtime.
“I’m a bad guy,” Cronin said of the decision to play final possession right away. “My biggest worry was that when we went into the foul they were going to take a halfway shot, and we were going to take a 3 point shot. ”
Alabama forced an overtime and had all the momentum. UCLA was once again fighting an uphill battle to stay alive. From the Bruins’ perspective, however, this was a situation they had been in before. They went into overtime in the first game of four against the Spartans and had already been in five overtime games this season.
Instead of sulking on Reese’s final heroics, UCLA threw the first overtime punch, scoring the first seven points en route to a 23-point explosion in the extra five minutes.
“We knew we had nothing to worry about about it,” UCLA junior Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “It’s March. It happens all the time. ”
“You don’t win every game in overtime, but we know we’ve been in that position before, and we knew we still have five minutes to try to win this game,” Jaquez added later. “So we knew we had to be the toughest team on the market, and that will be the reason we won the game, it’s being the toughest team. As I said, we have already held these positions. You don’t win. every game, but it’s a position we’re very comfortable with. ”
UCLA had six players finishing in double digits, led by Jaquez’s 17 points. The 6-foot-7 winger, who scored 27 in the top-four win over Michigan State, started slowly on Sunday, with four points in the first half; but he hit a number of big shots in the second half and in overtime – including a 3-point with 1:37 left in the contest that gave UCLA a seven-point lead and sealed the victory.
“These are definitely clichés that I practiced at the park, just imagining being in March Madness, getting the bucket of fire like that,” Jaquez said. “But, yeah, my mentality, I saw the shot clock go down, and I knew we needed a big shot. So I just took the picture. ”
Perhaps the biggest key to the game was Alabama’s struggles to shoot the ball. The Crimson Tide came into the game as one of the most reliant 3-point teams in the country, and they only made 7-28 behind the arc. UCLA beat them by 3 points, which rarely happens in Alabama.
An even greater horror for the Crimson Tide was their performance from the free throw line. They went 11 for 25 from the foul line, including a stretch at the end of regulation and at the start of overtime when they missed six of the board’s seven.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Alabama scoring 11-on-25 from the foul line was the worst free-throw performance (minimum of 25 attempts) in the NCAA tournament since Kansas scored 12 on 30 in the 2003 national championship game against Syracuse.
“We needed another free throw in the rule to win it, but it’s tough. It’s the basketball game. You have to pass them, ”Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “We put a big emphasis on the guys who make them. I thought a lot of guys have improved dramatically. Herb Jones is an excellent free throw shooter all year round. He’s put in a ton of time throughout the offseason, all year, really, in the gym. He’s a good free throw shooter. I didn’t do it tonight. ”
UCLA travel to face regional seed Michigan, who dominated Florida State, four seeds, in the other Sweet 16 East game on Sunday.
The Bruins are looking to be the fifth seeded 11 to make the Final Four and the second team to move from the First Four to the Final Four. So although this is Cronin’s first Elite Eight as a college head coach, their goals have yet to be met.
“We are not finished,” Jaquez said. “We still have a lot of work to do. ”