Plaschke: Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s injury puts a twist on UCLA’s NCAA lane

Welcome, UCLA, to Bittersweet 16.

On an afternoon when the Bruins’ powerful heart was beating in a second round win of the NCAA tournament against St. Mary’s, that heart sank.

In a game where the Bruins’ strong backbone came together to muddle and confuse a disciplined Gaels team in a 72-56 win, that backbone crumbled.

It happened at 6:58 into Saturday’s game. It happened under the Ladybasket. It was a sight that filled the stands of the Moda Center with foreheads pressed together and mouths covered.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. went down and stayed down. The boy who carried this team on two tortured ankles all season finally broke down.

He was fighting for a rebound. His right ankle lost the fight. He landed flat on the hardwood, writhing in pain. He grabbed his lower leg. Coach Mick Cronin rushed to his side.

Jaquez eventually walked away under his own power, but with a scary limp while putting limited and clearly painful weight on the ankle.

After briefly disappearing into the tunnel, he returned to watch the rest of the game from the bench. When his teammates gathered during time-outs, he remained seated. When the game was over and everyone lined up to shake hands, he limped back into the locker room.

The official word is that Jaquez is dealing with a sprained right ankle on a day-to-day basis.

The unofficial word is: hold your breath.

Well built and well trained, the Bruins have weathered countless moments of adversity during a season that has landed in a second straight Sweet 16.

But face it, they desperately need their leader to recover in time for Friday’s East Regional semifinal showdown in Philadelphia in Philadelphia against North Carolina.

“What he brings to our team…he’s one of the best players in the country,” Cronin said clearly.

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) is assisted off the field by Logan Cremonesi (20) after Jaquez was injured on March 19, 2022.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) is helped off by Bruins teammate Logan Cremonesi (20) after Jaquez was injured on Saturday. Jaquez scored 15 points and is considered suitable for everyday use.

(Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press)

Jaquez propelled through the paint, combining a steamroller attack with a featherweight touch and scoring 15 goals in a first half on Saturday that basically decided that game and it was nothing new. At the end of the season he scored 80 goals in three games. He’s their most consistent presence, their most physical attacker, their toughest defender, Cronin personified.

“He brings defensive strength with him. … On offense he’s a nightmare in the pairing,” said Tyger Campbell, 16-top scorer on Saturday. “He’s just a really good all-rounder and brings toughness to our team.”

UCLA can take comfort in knowing that Jaquez’s toughness has become legendary this season.

In November, Jaquez retired from a game after his face absorbed a laceration that was dripping blood. Shortly after, he was pulled out of a game in the first half when he fell heavily on his head. Then there’s his ankles, both of which were previously so injured that he’s been playing with braces on both since mid-February.

“He’s had so many sprained ankles, I don’t know how bad he can sprain,” Cronin said.

But Jaquez kept climbing, so he only missed one start. And Cronin won’t stop believing in it now.

“We have until Friday to play and trust me if he can walk, he will play,” Cronin said. “I know him … most guys who have what he has would have sat out the rest of the season. Well, we’ll see.”

Cronin, who led the team to their first straight Sweet 16 appearances in six years, was quick to point out that the Bruins have the depth to replace Jaquez — namely defensive genius Jaylen Clark and the occasional brilliant newcomer Peyton Watson. While some thought Jaquez’s injury could inspire the Gaels, the Bruins actually surpassed St. Mary’s 17-9 after Jaquez left.

“Of course we play through [Jaquez] a lot on offense,” Cronin said. “But I just said to Jaylen Clark and Payton … these guys have talent and these guys are still playing. Of course you want Jaime to be healthy, but if he’s not, we have other guys to play with.

Both subs played 10 minutes on Saturday and both did well, with Clark recording a 12-plus and Watson making his only shot with a rebound and a steal.

“We can only come together,” Campbell said.

UCLA's Jaylen Clark defends St. Mary's Tommy Kuhse in the first half of March 19, 2022 in Portland, Ore.

UCLA defenseman Jaylen Clark, who was up 12 on Saturday, guards St. Marys Tommy Kuhse in the first half.

(Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press)

On Saturday, they again showed a cohesion that would be crucial in Jaquez’s absence. After struggling to make plays early in the game, their team defense tightened and made an incredible push, climbing down the Gaels’ shirts and harrying them to bricks and irons. With UCLA trailing 20-13 midway through the half, the Bruins went on a 15-2 run that saw the Gaels miss 12 straight shots while committing three turnovers.

The Gaels threw blind layups against doubles teams, removed insane threes with their hands in front of their faces and buzzing slingshots that never stood a chance.

All along, with St. Mary’s Basket right in front of UCLA’s cheering section, the Gaels’ offense was surrounded by a constant roar that seemed to shake them.

UCLA, meanwhile, made 11 of their last 17 shots at halftime to hold a never-threatened 36-29 halftime lead.

While Jaquez’s condition was the big question, this game might have provided an answer as well. Maybe, just maybe, previously injured and out of shape Johnny Juzang has rediscovered his touch. He made six out of eleven shots. He grabbed eight rebounds. He smiled.

“The togetherness was great,” said Juzang. “You can just feel it. I know we all can… it’s the best feeling man. Especially in March man…we have so much fun.”

They’re certainly bringing the right attitude into a difficult regional semifinal where they meet a team from North Carolina who were just 3:49 of 85 behind in the first two rounds. The Tar Heels beat Marquette by 32 points and led Baylor by 25 points in the second half, playing their best basketball of the season at a Wells Fargo Center sure to be packed with their fans.

“You can’t play better than Carolina,” Cronin said.

As they showed on Saturday, the Bruins appear to have every tool they need to bring down the Tar Heels… except for one… for now.

The eight-clap cheer that filled the Moda Center early Saturday night was overshadowed by three words addressed to the player who was unable to attend the post-game celebration, perhaps their most important player of all, one Jaime Jacques Jr

Get well soon. Plaschke: Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s injury puts a twist on UCLA’s NCAA lane

Andrew Schnitker

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