Plaschke: UCLA finds Mojo just in time to prevent an ugly tradition from repeating itself

It was the Princeton nightmare, the Detroit Mercy embarrassment, the humiliation of St. Bonaventure, all together on a desperate march to madness.

It was the worst kind of UCLA basketball history on repeat, the fourth-place Bruins being grabbed around the ankles by an energetic 13th-place Akron who wouldn’t let go.

Mick Cronin screamed and gesticulated and literally went insane. His team was nervous and flailed and failed.

The Bruins could have lost. The Bruins probably should have lost. The Bruins’ ugly tradition of first-round NCAA tournaments dictated that they would have lost.

But not this UCLA team. Not the. Not now.

Not Tyger Campbell, who calmly floated out of nowhere in two deep splashes and scored eight points in the final three minutes.

“My teammates kept finding me and I just wanted to play,” he said.

Not Jules Bernard who screamed and bent and hit two big trees on the track.

“We’re a resilient team…we persevered,” Bernard said. “I think that’s the mark of a great team, when you fight and you take on a challenge and you come out victorious.”

And not Cody Riley, who jumped out of the doldrums to block an Ali Ali layup with four seconds left to eventually seal a 57-53 win at Portland’s raucous Moda Center.

The Bruins stomped off the ground with equal parts relief and joy. It had been brutal. It had been exhausting. But they’ve been here before. You have done this before.

As with almost every one of last year’s five victories on their unlikely path to the Final Four, they were just tough enough to survive.

“You’re going to win a rock fight, you gotta put your hard hat on and watch the ball…hang in there and make a few stops and take a few shots to land,” Cronin said.

Next up is St. Mary’s here on Saturday at 4pm and unless the Bruins find their rhythm and passion for a full 40 minutes they could be in big trouble.

Playing just outside of UCLA, the Gaels obliterated Indiana 82-53 while playing with Akron’s discipline and energy.

You are better than Akron. You have an experienced guide. They beat Gonzaga. You will have a hard time.

“St. Mary plays at the same tempo, her tempo,” Cronin said. “We have to try and do a few things to make them uncomfortable.”

Akron guard Xavier Castaneda jumps to take a shot as UCLA forward Cody Riley and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. look on.

Akron guard Xavier Castaneda jumps to take a shot while UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) look on during the second half of a first round NCAA tournament game Thursday in Portland, Ore.

(Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press)

The Bruins won’t take St. Mary’s lightly, and they claim they didn’t take Akron lightly. They said they were scared even before the game started.

Thirty minutes before the UCLA tip, as the Bruins took the floor to warm up, cheers filled the Moda Center from fans watching scoreboard video of the 15th-seeded St. Peter’s 85-79 win over second-seeded Kentucky .

The excitement is huge for UCLA, as the Wildcats appeared to be the Bruins’ biggest hurdle in the east region on their way back to the Final Four. But it was even bigger because it served as a warning.

“That’s March right there for you,” said Jaime Jaquez Jr. “It happens every year, teams get excited. And we watched the game and we were like, ‘This can’t be us tonight… we just knew we didn’t want to be the ones upset tonight and we’re looking forward to bigger things.’

Also, it was announced before the game that Cronin had signed this new six-year deal just one year after signing a two-year extension. The guess is that UCLA officials were concerned that the Cincinnati native would return to coaching at his old Louisville home base.

This is a good step for the university. In three short years, Cronin has energized the program and made it relevant again. He filled the Pauley Pavilion, got the Bruins buzzing around town, and made UCLA basketball feel like UCLA basketball again.

But the signing was almost overshadowed when Cronin suffered almost the same fate as all of his predecessors who dated Jim Harrick.

It seems to be in the DNA of 30 years of coaching UCLA basketball to blow an NCAA first-round gimme.

For Harrick it was Penn State, Tulsa and Princeton. For Steve Lavin, it was Detroit Mercy. For Ben Howland, it was Minnesota. For Steve Alford it was the horrendous play-in loss to St. Bonaventure.

Would it happen again? It almost happened.

Akron, who had never won an NCAA tournament game, led throughout the game, seemingly catching every loose ball and winning every single fight. The Zips took a 47-39 lead with 7:54 to go and held a four-point lead with three minutes to go.

But Bernard kept it tight and Campbell gave them the lead, and Riley ended it in a remarkable show of fortitude.

“We have an experienced team, it wasn’t a fight because we weren’t ready, I can tell you that,” Cronin said.

In those final minutes, it could have been time to give up. Instead, it was time for the Bruins experience, their leadership, their courage.

With 2:49 left, Campbell hit a three from the corner on a mighty pass from a driving Jaquez to draw the Bruins to a point.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell shoots a three on Akron.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell shoots a three-pointer against Akron in the second half of a first-round NCAA tournament game Thursday in Portland, Ore.

(Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press)

“I saw him wide open and I knew this guy had heart and he’s going to make a big toss,” Jaquez said.

Seconds later, after an Akron envelope, Campbell flipped in a jumper to give UCLA the lead. Then, with 1:19 left, he buried a deep three to give them a 55-51 advantage they never lost.

“He worked on that for 10 minutes yesterday while we were filming… we had already practiced,” Cronin said of the stabbing.

In fact, Campbell had been there and done that, and in their darkest hour in those early moments of the tournament, the Bruins finally lit up the gym with that simple explanation.

Not the. Not now. Plaschke: UCLA finds Mojo just in time to prevent an ugly tradition from repeating itself

Andrew Schnitker

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