It really was surreal. Saint Peter’s, aka America’s Darlings, watching to determine whether it would be facing UCLA or North Carolina on Sunday for the East Regional championship. It would be Cinderella versus the NCAA’s version of old money, and I wouldn’t be too quick to discount the fit of that glass slipper.
The Peacocks’ opponent this weekend in Philadelphia will be another team that has captured the magic this spring. It won’t be UCLA, but the Bruins should have an idea how that goes.
At one point in January, North Carolina was reeling. The Tar Heels were 4-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play after having lost back-to-back games at Miami and Wake Forest by 28 and 22 points, respectively. Two weeks later they were drilled by 20 points at home by Duke, and the angst in Chapel Hill ramped up further.
No wonder that when asked about it Friday night in the interview room, first-year North Carolina coach Hubert Davis harrumphed, “I’m a positive guy. These guys have won, what is it, nine out of the last 10, 15 out of the last 18, and we’re going to talk about a game in January?”
It takes one point of the season to put the other into its proper perspective, but whatever. Anyway, now look at the Tar Heels.
They blew by UCLA in the final 1:40 on Friday night, and as CBS’ Ian Eagle noted, all they needed was Love. Caleb Love, to be specific, scored 27 of his career-high 30 points in the second half and eight in a final 12-3 run – including devastating back-to-back 3-pointers – in North Carolina’s 73-66 victory. The eighth-seeded Tar Heels are now 27-9 and have eliminated the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds in the regional, Baylor and UCLA.
“We knew back then we were as good as a team. We knew if we bought in and played at a high level we could get this far,” center Armando Bacot said.
This was UCLA’s story last year, even accounting for the difference between an NCAA Tournament in a bubble in 2021 and a more normal tournament in ’22. The Bruins were reeling at midseason in 2021 but were blazing hot at the end, all the way up to that crazy half-court shot by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs that beat the overtime buzzer and eliminated them in the Final Four.
This year they were the hunted, rather than the hunter. And for much of the night, the Bruins (27-8) were up to the task in a game with a blistering pace, 14 lead changes and eight ties.
In the end, the 15 offensive rebounds they allowed – eight by Bacot – and the 19 second-chance points that resulted made the difference.
“We knew that was going to be the biggest problem,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We didn’t get the job done on the defensive glass. They’ve got too much firepower to give them second shots, third shots at times.
“It would be fitting that our downfall where we had the lead was another offensive rebound.”
That came at the end of a late-game sequence when the Bruins left themselves open to a second-guess for not taking a quick foul.
The second of Love’s back-to-back 3-pointers, from the deep right wing, gave Carolina a 67-64 lead with 1:03 left. At the other end, Jaime Jaquez Jr. missed a jump shot and Bacot rebounded it with 42 seconds left. But rather than fouling to preserve precious seconds, the Bruins let the Tar Heels run their stuff, and Bacot tipped in R.J. Davis’ miss with 15 seconds left for a 69-64 lead.
“When we’re in that position we’re always thinking, stay solid on defense, get a stop and get a rebound,” Jules Bernard said. “But that’s not how it went.”
Would a quick foul earlier have made a difference? We’ll never know. Tyger Campbell scored on a drive with 9.6 seconds left. Then UCLA fouled, Love made both free throws, Davis added two more free throws with three-tenths of a second left, and that was that.
“For it to end the way it did, it hurts,” said Johnny Juzang, who starred during the Bruins’ Final Four run last spring. “I felt like we had a real chance to do something really big, so just unfortunate. We all love playing for each other and playing for Coach.
“So it sucks.”
They were back together this season, Campbell, Jaquez, Juzang, Bernard, Cody Riley and David Singleton, to take care of unfinished business. Instead, they exited two rounds earlier than they did last year, and now juniors Jaquez, Juzang and Campbell have to decide whether to give it one more college try or turn pro.
It is a group of players who went against the norm in college basketball, in two ways. They stayed together, rather than turning pro or running for the transfer portal when things got rough. They were repaying Cronin’s loyalty, because when the coach got to Westwood three years ago he made it clear that he would go with the guys who were there already, instead of loading up on transfers or bringing in “his guys.”
He resisted the urge to bring point guard Logan Johnson with him from Cincinnati; Johnson transferred to Saint Mary’s instead and played against the Bruins last week. He’d recruited the aforementioned Davis hard when he was at Cincinnati – “lived with him,” Cronin quipped – but did not continue to pursue him when he took the UCLA job. Davis contributed 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 37 minutes for the Tar Heels on Friday night.
But the loyalty Cronin showed, and that he received, helps explain why UCLA is again relevant on a national scale.
“To do what I came here to do, to get where we want to go, I needed to build with these guys,” Cronin said earlier in the week. “And, you know, we took some lumps my first year, the first couple of months, and one of those lumps was Carolina in Vegas. But I think we’re where we are because of the loyalty they showed me by staying and I showed them by not bringing in other guys, and just, you know, adding pieces where we needed them.”
It was natural that Jaquez, Juzang and Bernard were somber as they entered the interview room in Philadelphia.
“Yeah, they’re heartbroken,” Cronin said. “But like I tell them, we all play at UCLA, we practice under the Pyramid of Success, and true greatness is giving your best effort. Give your best effort to get your degree, be a good person, be a good teammate. They’ve restored UCLA to the national scene. They can’t – my message to them is you can’t let people say, ‘Hey, you did not win it all this year,’ or, ‘Your season is not a success.’ That’s a ludicrous statement.
“Although,” he added, “I came to UCLA to try to get this 12th title and I’m not going to leave until I do.”
For sure, they aren’t as far away from that goal as they were when he got here.
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