UCLA’s tourney run ends in heartbreaking fashion, but the Bruins fought like hell

Darron Cummings / Associated Press

Are you effing kidding me? No way. What a game. This one really hurts, but the Bruins have to forget about their unspeakable anguish. It was one of those nights that the Bruins felt the sharp sting of elimination after seeing their Cinderella run come to end in heartbreaking fashion with a 93-90 Final Four loss to Gonzaga.

After Johnny Juzang’s putback tied the score at 90-90 with 3.3 seconds left to play in overtime, Jalen Suggs caught the ball, sped across the half-court line and launched a shot. Gonzaga’s point guard left no time on the clock after the ball ricocheted off the glass and went through the net. The game-winning shot will unquestionably and rightly go down as one of the most dramatic in NCAA history.

The Bruins were hoping to get one last crack at forcing potentially double overtime, but that would not happen as they were sent home from their Indianapolis trip. After what looked like a potential upset, the Bruins’ hopes and dreams had been washed away because of one of the most exciting shots in all of basketball.

The Bruins’ 2021 season deserved such a better ending. This wasn’t the way the Bruins envisioned their season ending. In what would prove to be a magical run that featured excellent shooting and a suffocating defense, UCLA basketball put the madness in March and knocked off every team it faced before falling to Gonzaga.

It had been 13 years since UCLA took Westwood on a wild ride through the crazy month of March and into the early part of April. The Bruins entered this contest having won five straight games after having entered the NCAA Tournament on a four-game losing streak. To the contrary, Gonzaga remains the single biggest threat in college basketball, having taken the sport by force.

It was the kind of game, and moment, that people will talk about for many years. And, while the Bruins’ brilliant display of basketball gave rise to a sense of unexpected optimism, the Bulldogs continued their reign of excellence and perfection. A gritty and fierce underdog faced a stronger and more balanced Gonzaga squad.

This team’s unusual, improbable, unthinkable run to the Final Four was met with a lot of hardened skepticism from experts who weighed in with their picks. Make no doubt, the Bruins’ unlikely title pursuit certainly brought unpredictability and surprised the masses. These Bruins did some heavy lifting to make it this far.

And they showed this was a team with some fight. They rallied back from a 14-point deficit to beat Michigan State in the First Four game, and then breezed through a pesky Abilene Christian without much difficulty to reach the Sweet 16. They marched their way to the Elite Eight after pulling off the stunner with a huge upset win over Alabama. They stunned No. 1 Michigan after holding the Wolverines without a basket for the final five minutes of the game to advance to the Final Four.

Nobody has done a better job at bringing UCLA back into the fold of the national limelight than Mick Cronin and it was, in part, because he put an emphasis on his team’s defense. The main focuses of his defensive strategies were to put constant pressure on the ball and force the opposition into a low-percentage shot.

This team’s defensive tenacity and effort, along with its newfound ability to score, keyed UCLA’s strong finish. This team’s unlikely run was proof that it could fight through a tough stretch and beat good teams. This was not a very good team on paper, regardless of how well they played to get here.

They gave it their all, and unfortunately, it was not enough. The team worked together. The enthusiasm and energy were contagious within a team atmosphere. For the entire game, they ran up and down the floor, and they scored to keep it close.

The Bruins were down seven with three minutes to play, but came roaring back with ferocity and forced overtime. The momentum had shifted in the Bruins’ favor. They scratched, clawed their way back into the ballgame, fighting for every point and leaving all of their effort on the floor. In an exciting, fast-paced game that featured 15 ties and 19 lead changes, the Bruins simply wouldn’t quit.

Against a Bulldogs team whose identity is built on a flying offense, the Bruins were able to put together consistent efforts with execution at both ends of the floor, despite a loss. That’s why they were here, with them content to play anybody on this big stage, and they went on an offensive surge early and held the game’s momentum throughout the first half. UCLA led by as many as six points through the first 20 minutes, becoming the first team to lead Gonzaga in the second half in the tournament.

With the game tied at 77, Suggs made one heck of a block late on UCLA big man Cody Riley. It’s a play that might have dictated the outcome of the game. By the time Riley soared to the basket, Suggs powered toward the rim to put Riley on a poster. It kept the game tied, and then it allowed Drew Timme to get an easy dunk on the other end.

Juzang turned in another exceptional all-around effort while flying around the floor and tossing in a wide array of shots. It was as if he was on a personal mission to get his name mentioned in UCLA’s next ESPN 30 for 30. He was the high man for the Bruins with 29 points, including a 15-footer with 1:27 left in regulation. Then too, Jamie Jaquez, as superb as he’s been, poured in 19 points. He hit a pair of free throws to tie it at 81 with 43 seconds left.

If someone had told you that UCLA would have made it to the big dance when the season began, you wouldn’t have believed them. Either way you spin it, the Bruins turned it on when it mattered against whoever was in front of them. This Bruins team was a pleasant surprise. The result of this game shouldn’t matter, and they can go home while keeping their heads up.

It was an unfortunate loss, a heartbreaker for a team that equipped itself for a long journey. These guys, however, put everyone on notice until they played a hot Gonzaga team. And though the Bruins went toe to toe with the Bulldogs all night long, they unfortunately fell short. This is what a heartbreak feels like. But this is also what it looks like to walk away winners.

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Jonathan Mathis as known as The Sports Judge is the founder of SoCalChronicle. He is a professional Sports writer, contributor, Youtuber, podcaster @ ASAP Network, and co-host of Gonzo & The Judge Sports Talk. Follow the SportsJudge@ https://twitter.com/Sportsjudge85


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