INDIANAPOLIS — It is the most storied program in the history of college basketball, its blue hue died deep into the fabric of the sport. UCLA has won 11 NCAA men’s basketball titles, most of any college by a distance. Some of the most fabled names in the history of the sport have graced the floor at Pauley Pavilion: Alcindor, Walton and Wicks.
Throughout UCLA’s frenetic, charmed and adrenaline-fueled run during this NCAA tournament, it’s been difficult to adjust your eyes and see the No. 11 Bruins through the prism of a double-digit seed. They’d needed overtime in the First Four just to get in the conventional bracket.
But as late Tuesday met early Wednesday in Lucas Oil Stadium, UCLA embraced a plot twist Hollywood would have rolled its eyes at a generation ago: Cinderella wearing Bruin blue. No. 1 Michigan got lost in UCLA’s meat-grinder defense, missing its final eight shots — many of which were clean looks — and falling to the Bruins, 51-49.
“Stats are for losers, they say,” UCLA coach Mike Cronin said, in a nod to this game’s stylistic shortcomings. “You either win or you lose. You can crumble up that stat sheet tonight.”
UCLA’s 19th Final Four appearance will surely resonate as its most improbable. The Bruins became just the second team to sprint from the First Four to Final Four. (A decade ago, Shaka Smart’s VCU team did the same.)
The Bruins also became just the fifth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. They join the motley crew of LSU (1986), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Loyola Chicago (2018). UCLA listed with that group is like finding a low-calorie menu at Popeyes or bumping into Steve Jobs in the Fairfield Inn lobby.
At 12:31 a.m., an obnoxious UCLA fan capped off a dance performance of “Scoop There It Is” by screaming something generations of UCLA fans never would have: “Do you believe in miracles?”
Amid the awkward celebrations that have come inherent to this pandemic-shrouded Elite Eight, Cronin led the UCLA section in postgame cheers from about 20 yards away. At one point, he lathered his hands in sanitizer and grabbed a pile of Final Four hats to toss to friends and family. Two red-coated security guards stopped him, which meant Cronin finally felt how Michigan did most of the night.
The Wolverines’ Franz Wagner missed a clean 3-point look with 11 seconds remaining and the Wolverines trailing by one. He short-armed the shot, the airball barely grazing the net and epitomizing a day he’d rather forget. Wagner finished 1 for 10 from the field, Michigan’s offensive futility crystalized in a stat line.
When UCLA hero Johnny Juzang hit just one of his two free throws with six seconds left, Michigan mustered two more clean looks trailing by two points. Senior guard Mike Smith missed a 3-pointer and Wagner missed a heave as time expired.
“Franz is one of the reasons why we're here in this position,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I always have trust in all my players, and it's never one guy’s fault because he doesn't shoot the ball well.”
That final shot came with Michigan star center and resident paint bulldozer Hunter Dickinson inbounding the ball, leaving coach Howard open for an offseason of second guessing as to why Dickinson’s 7-foot-1 frame and ample derrière wasn’t planted in the post to attempt to get a tip in on the undersized Bruins.
Michigan’s futility was Cronin’s delight, as he termed the game a “Big Ten Battle Royale” and mentioned that the game was so half-court oriented that he substituted less than normal because players weren’t as tired. That doesn’t exactly conjure up images of the Showtime Lakers, but Cronin knows that style points won’t end up in the record books.
“I spell fun W-I-N,” he said. “Those guys are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their life back in that locker room.”
Juzang supplied more than half of UCLA’s offense, pouring in 28 points. The Kentucky transfer who was lightly used in Lexington last season as a shooting specialist has become a scoring specialist in Westwood. He hit 11 of 19 from the field, with nine of his 11 field goals coming from 2-point range. He needed oxygen on a wheezing night of offense for UCLA, which won despite shooting 38.9% from the field.
“It's incredible, man,” Juzang said. “Surreal. Surreal. Something, you know, growing up, you just dream about.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this run is that UCLA lost its top recruit to the G League (Daishen Nix), leading returning scorer (Chris Smith) to injury and a key rotation piece (Jalen Hill) to personal reasons.
When asked if Cronin could have envisioned a Final Four in just his second season in Westwood, he said: “Without those three guys? Hell no.”
But Cronin has supplied the heaping helping of grit that defined his teams at Cincinnati. Michigan didn’t score a field goal over the game’s final 5:22.
That’s exactly what UCLA is at this point in year two under Cronin — undermanned, defensive minded and ready for any street fight. Cronin told a story of one of his mentors, Rick Pitino, often saying he’d rather spend one day as a lion than 1,000 as a lamb. “I told my father, if I didn’t take this job,” Cronin said, “I’ll feel like a lamb.”
And as trading places go, that’s what No. 11 UCLA will be cast up against when the Bruins face No. 1 Gonzaga in the Final Four. The Zags are looking to become the first team in more than four decades to cap an undefeated season with an NCAA tournament title, where they’d join four UCLA teams from the glory era: 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973. Last generation’s West Coast power will be going up against this generation’s West Coast power.
Gonzaga will be heavily favored, but as we’ve already seen in this NCAA tournament, UCLA has embraced life as an underdog.
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