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UCLA has options if Jaime Jaquez Jr. can’t play UNC

So what does Mick Cronin do?

With Jaime Jaquez Jr. unable to play in the biggest game of the season and Jaylen Clark fielding, will the UCLA coach go with his top defenseman? Or does he go with the up-and-coming Peyton Watson, whose impossibly long arms and legs make him a human roadblock to the basket?

They’re questions Cronin hopes he’ll never have to answer.

If all goes well, Jaquez’s sprained right ankle will heal sufficiently. The Junior Guard has nearly a week to undergo any intense recovery program Coach Tyler Lesher devises, be it ice, massage, heat, elevation, or maybe even a shaman’s blessing.

Anyone who’s watched Jaquez struggle through one bloody face, one banged head and one ankle problem after another expects him to be on the court in Philadelphia on Friday when the fourth-placed Bruins (27-7) take on the meet eighth place North Carolina (26-9) in an NCAA tournament in the East Regional semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center.

“Trust me,” Cronin said Saturday night after his team overran St. Mary’s in the second round, “if he can walk, he’ll play.”

Remember, Jaquez returned just minutes after squeamishing fans at the Thomas & Mack Center when teammate Myles Johnson elbowed him in the face during a game against Nevada Las Vegas, resulting in blood flow.

He came back briefly against Stanford in late January after aggravating an ankle injury before the pain became too severe to continue.

Only his coach could stop him from playing in the second half of a game against Colorado in early December after Jaquez slammed his head on the court, Cronin held him out as a precaution, acknowledging the resilience of his bravest player.

“His dad said, ‘You can drop him on his head and play with him,'” Cronin burst out afterwards.

Jaquez has missed just one game this season and was benched in a January 15 win over Oregon State with a sore left ankle in blue sweats. He returned five days later and has played in every game since, despite requiring a protective splint on each ankle and acknowledging he was dealing with an inflammatory condition that requires constant attention.

Jaquez sat out the game, Cronin approached Clark and was not disappointed with the results. The 6-foot-5 sophomore, making his first career start, scored all 11 of his points before halftime and played some centers as part of a small-ball lineup that effectively ended the Beavers.

Of course, North Carolina poses a far greater challenge than a Pac-12 rival that has three wins to its name. The rising Tar Heels feature a true center in the 6-foot-10 Armando Bacot and a stretch four in the 6-foot-9 Brady Manek, leading to matchup difficulties.

North Carolina guard RJ Davis, forward Brady Manek and forward Armando Bacot celebrate.

North Carolina guard RJ Davis (4), forward Brady Manek (45) and forward Armando Bacot (5) celebrate during the second half of a second round game against Baylor at the NCAA tournament in Fort Worth Saturday.

(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Manek hit four three-pointers and scored 26 points against top seed Baylor on Saturday before being ejected in the second half for an elbow throw that was ruled a flagrant 2 foul. The disqualification doesn’t come with an automatic suspension, meaning Manek is expected to make a return against the Bruins.

Jaquez would likely draw the bearded Oklahoma transfer as his defensive duty should Jaquez be cleared for the North Carolina game. He’s listed on a day-to-day basis, with his status likely to be the first question Cronin is asked each day.

Clark would concede a few inches to Manek but nothing in the determination department, eager to make things difficult despite the size difference. The alternative would be to let the 6ft-8 Watson use his 7ft-1 wingspan, which has earned him the nickname “Peyton SWATson” and helped him become a lockdown defender in recent weeks.

The Bruins have been short-handed for most of the season due to injuries. Among the regular members of the rotation, only guard Jules Bernard and Johnson have not missed a game through injury.

“It would be normal for us again if [Jaquez] not played,” Cronin said. “It’s been like this all year.”

Still, Jaquez’s absence would be a blow more than losing his averages of 14 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He carried the Bruins’ offense late into the season, averaging 21 points in his last seven games.

In the first half against St. Mary’s, it sometimes felt like Jaquez wasn’t just UCLA’s best option, but their only option, with most of his teammates standing around. Jaquez scored all 15 of his points before half-time and was eliminated with just under seven minutes to go with an ankle injury.

His presence infuses his teammates with a determination that has made him UCLA’s most indispensable player since cementing his place as a starter with an inspired game at the Maui Invitational early in his freshman season.

Along the way, he became one of the most popular Bruins beyond the family behind the team bench, blowing him kisses after he injured himself against the Gaels. With a sentence Friday, the PA announcer at the Wells Fargo Center could unleash some of the biggest roars of the evening.

“Starting at the guard, a 6-7 junior from Camarillo, California, Jaime Jaquez Jr!”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-03-20/here-are-some-options-if-ucla-star-jaime-jaquez-jr-cant-play-against-north-carolina UCLA has options if Jaime Jaquez Jr. can’t play UNC

Andrew Schnitker

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