March Madness: UCLA defeats Saint Mary’s and returns to Sweet 16

They can break out their dance moves all over again.

The UCLA Bruins return to the Sweet 16 for a second straight season after breaking away and pulling away in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night at St. Mary’s Moda Center.

Trailing by as many as seven points in the first half, the Bruins raised their defense by several notches and withstood the loss of guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. with an ankle injury. With about seven minutes to go, they were on course for a 72-56 win.

The final minutes were an extended celebration. With the Bruins on 15 points and fans shouting “UCLA!” Bruins forward Cody Riley made his own exclamation point by making a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock and then holding up three fingers for effect.

UCLA Coach Mick Cronin gave fans a thumbs-up on the way off the field. His Bruins (27-7) took on eighth-seeded North Carolina in a regional semifinal in Philadelphia on Friday after the Tar Heels toppled defending champion Baylor earlier in the day. UCLA and North Carolina were scheduled to meet in Las Vegas this season before the Bruins went on a 26-day hiatus following a COVID-19 outbreak at the team.

It’s the first time UCLA has been promoted to the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons since 2014-15 during coach Steve Alford’s first two seasons.

Jaquez went down at the baseline with an ankle injury and was forced to leave with just under seven minutes to go. Jaquez had 15 points on six-for-11 shooting while carrying the Bruins’ offense for long stretches in the first half.

He hobbled around to test the ankle before sitting down on the bench, then turned to see his mother blowing him a few kisses from her seat three rows back.

Point guard Tyger Campbell scored 16 points and Jules Bernard and Johnny Juzang added 14 each for the Bruins.

The home of the Portland Trail Blazers eventually became RIP City for St. Mary’s, which was bidding for only its second Sweet 16 in school history and first since 2010. Logan Johnson led the Gaels (26-8) with 18 points.

St. Mary’s recalled the phrase “No Quit” in their warm-up and quickly erased most of a seven-point deficit at halftime, Alex Ducas’ three-pointer win taking the Gaels to 38-37. Finding the split was difficult, even after Bernard made a ride lay-up to put his team back in the lead at seven.

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang shoots over St. Mary's guard Tommy Kuhse during the first half of Saturday.

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang shoots over St. Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse in the first half of the Bruins’ 72-56 win Saturday.

(Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press)

Ducas hit another three to cut the Bruins’ lead to 48-44. At that point, Juzang, who has been largely absent since returning from a sprained ankle earlier this month, scored six straight points for his team with a vault hook in the lane and baseline jumps from either side of the court, increasing the cushion to 10 points in the middle was through the second half.

UCLA went 36-29 at halftime as the opening minutes of the game couldn’t have gone much worse. The Gaels’ precision offense so confused UCLA that Cronin resorted to a feared rarity — a zone defense — and Johnson, who once played for Cronin at Cincinnati, responded with a three-pointer to break an early tie.

After St. Mary’s followed with two more threes for a 16-9 lead, Cronin turned to his last resort: a time-out. The Bruins’ defense was shredded and their offense seemingly went one for five, with Jaquez attacking the basket but nobody else doing much.

The Gaels eventually took over a seven-point lead before a funny thing happened en route to the Bruins’ apparent demise. They unleashed possibly their best defense of the season.

It started out by forcing one miss after another, thanks to traps, fast-shuffling feet, and active hands. UCLA was on a 13-0 run while St. Mary’s missed 12 consecutive shots and had three turnovers while remaining scoreless for 6½ minutes.

At one point, as the Bruins went on time out in full lockdown mode, UCLA freshman guard Peyton Watson flapped his arms to liven up the crowd while parents and donors behind the team bench roared with delight.

After St. Mary’s made six of its first nine shots while UCLA was held to three of nine shots, the halftime trends had reversed. The Bruins made 11 of their last 19 shots while keeping the Gales on four of 17. March Madness: UCLA defeats Saint Mary’s and returns to Sweet 16

Andrew Schnitker

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