They can break out their dance moves once again.
The UCLA Bruins are going back to the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive season after locking down and pulling away from St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday evening at the Moda Center.
Trailing by as many as seven points in the first half, the Bruins ratcheted up their defense several notches and withstood the loss of guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. to an ankle injury with about seven minutes left on the way to a 72-56 victory.
The final minutes were an extended celebration. With the Bruins up 15 points and fans chanting “U-C-L-A!” Bruins forward Cody Riley provided his own exclamation point by making a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock, holding three fingers aloft afterward for effect.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin flashed a thumbs-up to fans on his way off the court, his Bruins (27-7) advancing to face eighth-seeded North Carolina in a regional semifinal on Friday in Philadelphia after the Tar Heels toppled defending national champion Baylor earlier in the day. UCLA and North Carolina were supposed to meet in Las Vegas this season before the Bruins went on a 26-day pause after a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
It’s the first time UCLA has advanced to the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons since doing so in 2014-15 during coach Steve Alford’s first two seasons.
Jaquez went down along the baseline with an ankle injury and had to depart with just under seven minutes left. Jaquez had scored 15 points on six-for-11 shooting while carrying the Bruins’ offense for long stretches of the first half.
He limped around to test the ankle before taking a spot on the bench, turning around to see his mother blow him a few kisses from her spot 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 ended up being R.I.P. 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.
Resembling the phrase across their warmups that read “No Quit,” St. Mary’s quickly wiped out most of a seven-point halftime deficit, Alex Ducas’ three-pointer pulling the Gaels within 38-37. Finding separation was hard even after Bernard made a driving layup to put his team back up by seven.
Ducas rattled in another three-pointer to trim the Bruins’ advantage to 48-44. That’s when Juzang, largely missing in action since returning from a sprained ankle earlier this month, scored six consecutive points for his team on a jump hook in the lane and baseline jumpers from each side of the court, extending the cushion to 10 points midway through the second half.
UCLA took an unlikely 36-29 halftime lead given the game’s opening minutes couldn’t have gone much worse. The Gaels’ precision offense flummoxed UCLA to the point that Cronin resorted to a dreaded 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 three-pointers to take a 16-9 lead, Cronin turned to his last resort: a timeout. The Bruins’ defense was getting shredded and its offense was seemingly going one-on-five with Jaquez attacking the basket but no one else doing much of anything.
The Gaels eventually took a seven-point lead before a funny thing happened on the way to the Bruins’ apparent demise. They unleashed possibly their best defense of the season.
It started with forcing one missed shot after another thanks to traps, quickly shuffling feet and active hands. UCLA rolled off a 13-0 run while St. Mary’s missed 12 consecutive shots and committed three turnovers while going scoreless for 6½ minutes.
At one point, the Bruins in full lockdown mode going into a timeout, UCLA freshman guard Peyton Watson flapped his arms to invigorate the crowd as the parents and donors behind the team bench roared in celebration.
After St. Mary’s made six of its first nine shots while holding UCLA to three-of-nine shooting, the trends had reversed by halftime. The Bruins made 11 of their last 19 shots while holding the Gales to four of 17.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism