At halftime Saturday night, UCLA coach Mick Cronin challenged his team to keep it close for 10 more minutes and that they should then be able to crank up the pressure on unbeaten Gonzaga.
The flawless combination created a masterpiece of a college basketball game. It just didn’t lead to a win for the upstart Bruins.
After UCLA star Johnny Juzang’s basket with 3.3 seconds to go in overtime tied things up at 90, Jalen Suggs answered with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the unbeaten Bulldogs into their second national championship game and the Bruins home to think about how close they came to adding another memorable chapter to the school’s rich history.
“When Johnny got the putback, I didn’t have a timeout left so I was running at my guys to get their attention to trap the ball and they got there late,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said. “It’s not their fault because we trained them to get back because Gonzaga is so fast. If you look at the film I was trying to get them to come up so he (Suggs) couldn’t get into that shot. Still, it was a bank shot from half court.”
UCLA (22-10) played this one a bit different than they had through their incredible tourney run that started in the First Four. The Bruins often traded baskets with Gonzaga (31-0), one of the nation’s most prolific scoring teams, and didn’t allow the Zags to go on one of their trademark runs.
The Bruins also made sure to keep things slow, deliberate and tense.
It was almost enough.
Juzang finished with 29 points to lead the Bruins, trying to become the first No. 11 seed to reach the championship game. Afterward, stunned UCLA players gathered around as the officials looked at a replay review to make sure the shot was off in time. It was.
“We went out fighting,” Juzang said. “We went out, there’s no better way, there’s no regrets. Everybody fought to the last play and the last shot is the last shot.”
UCLA can take solace in doing something no other team did this season by forcing the high-scoring Zags into overtime. It just couldn’t close out Gonzaga to continue an incredible postseason run that included overtime wins over Michigan State and Alabama, runaways against BYU and Abilene Christian and holding off off top-seeded Michigan to join VCU as the only teams to advance from the First Four to the Final Four.
The Bruins were fighting for school pride, too.
Only seven Division I teams and four schools have been undefeated national champs. Only UCLA has done it more than once, celebrating perfect seasons in 1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72 and 1972-73. The last team to accomplish the feat was the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
Since then, two undefeated teams had reached a Final Four in Indianapolis and lost — UNLV to Duke in 1991, Kentucky to Wisconsin in 2015. Gonzaga is the third and the Zags, too, were in a dogfight.
“Everybody is going to ask what I just told my team, so I’ll just tell you: I told them they have to let the last shot go,” Cronin said. “As much as they want to be beaten down and gutted and miserable, they have to let it go because they’re winners. As a coach all you can ask of your players is to give everything they’ve got.”
The Bruins certainly did their part.
Each time it looked like Gonzaga might get away, they fought right back — methodically erasing a 64-57 deficit midway through the second half. And it looked like they might win in regulation until Juzang was called for a charge with less than 1 second to go.
In overtime, Gonzaga jumped out to a quick 87-83 lead but when they couldn’t put it away, the Bruins capitalized. Cody Riley hit a 15-footer. The Zags answered with a 3-pointer from Andrew Nembhard to make it 90-85 with 1:15 to go and yet the Bruins knotted things at 90 — only to see their effort fall short when Suggs’ magical shot set up the Monday night matchup college basketball fans have waited all season to watch — Gonzaga vs. Baylor.
“Kudos to them, they’re a very good team,” Juzang said. “But we’re UCLA and the guys on this team, there’s no one I’d rather go to battle with. And we expect to win. We are who we are and every game we went out and left it out there and let the best man win.”