The first stop on the road back to the Final Four was looking like a dead end.
Outhustled and outplayed by a quicker and more fearless team, UCLA stared directly at a quick exit in the NCAA tournament.
Tyger Campbell stared back and didn’t blink.
With his team trailing by eight points and less than eight minutes to play, the gritty point guard scored eight of his team’s final 10 points, pushing the fourth-seeded Bruins to a 57-53 comeback victory over 13th-seeded Akron in a first-round game at the Moda Center.
After his team could finally exhale, Campbell shook his fists in triumph. He was then mobbed by his teammates after UCLA persevered thanks mostly to their smallest player’s heroics, the Bruins closing the game on an 18-6 run.
The Bruins (26-7) will play fifth-seeded St. Mary’s in the second round on Saturday after the Gaels whipped Indiana by 29 points in an earlier game.
Campbell’s biggest shot came at the end of the shot clock when he drilled a three-pointer from NBA range to push UCLA into a 55-51 lead with 1:16 left, earning a hand slap from Jaime Jaquez Jr. and a chest bump from Peyton Watson on the way to the timeout huddle.
After the Zips pulled to within 55-53 and eventually got the ball back, UCLA’s Cody Riley shook off a poor showing to block a shot with his left hand with 4.3 seconds left. Bruins guard Johnny Juzang grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to secure the victory.
Campbell finished with 10 of his 16 points in the second half. Jaquez added 15 points and Jules Bernard added 10 for the Bruins, who won despite making just 35.2% of their shots. Campbell’s three-pointer from the corner pulled UCLA within 51-50 and after Bernard drew an offensive foul, flexing in celebration, Campbell gave the Bruins a 52-51 lead with a midrange jumper.
In its illustrious history, UCLA had only lost once previously to a 13th-seeded team, suffering that unfortunate fate in 1996 against Princeton during the season after the Bruins’ most recent national championship.
Akron was hoping to add its name to the list of huge underdogs that had toppled UCLA, joining Detroit Mercy and Tulsa in addition to the Tigers. Xavier Castaneda scored 18 points to lead the Zips (25-8).
The Bruins found themselves in a frightening spot heading into the timeout huddle with 7:54 left. Castaneda had just made back-to-back three-pointers and Zips guard Greg Tribble followed by flipping in a layup while falling down and getting fouled by UCLA’s Jaylen Clark. Tribble made the resulting free throw to push Akron’s lead to 47-39.
Bernard countered with a pair of three-pointers, including one in front of the UCLA bench that pulled the Bruins within 49-45.
UCLA found some offense from an unlikely source midway through the second half when freshman guard Watson made a three-pointer to give the Bruins a 37-36 lead. Watson followed with a jumper in the lane to give UCLA a 39-38 advantage before things started to get scary for the Bruins.
After regaining his spot in the starting lineup, Riley earned a quick hook early in the second half after getting beaten on back-to-back possessions. Akron’s Enrique Freeman positioned himself behind Riley and took an entry pass for a layup before moving around Riley for a dunk that gave the Zips a 30-27 lead.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin whirled toward his bench and motioned for Myles Johnson to enter the game. Johnson lasted only a few minutes, getting pulled after committing an offensive foul.
A reminder of the potential for massive upsets was provided during warmups when the final moments of 15th-seeded St. Peter’s triumph over second-seeded Kentucky on the other side of the East Region bracket was shown on the scoreboard, eliciting loud roars from fans.
Cronin had talked about showing humility with his team entering its postseason opener as 131/2-point favorites, but the Bruins were only humbled on the way to a 26-25 halftime deficit.
The opening moments showed promise for UCLA. Juzang, playing on his 21st birthday, sank a three-pointer 20 seconds into the game and gave a little head shake, before Akron’s Ali Ali matched the three-pointer and Freeman stole the ball from Bernard before going in for a dunk to push his team ahead.
It was an omen for the rest of the first half.
Unwilling to establish anything inside like they had during a recent stretch in which they had won eight of their last 10 games, the Bruins mostly settled for jump shots in the game’s early going. It wasn’t a good plan. UCLA made only three of its first 14 shots and committed four turnovers in the first nine minutes.
When Cronin called a timeout with his team down by six points, the Bruins looked at each other in the huddle with blank expressions, as if they didn’t know what to do.
Jaquez provided some answers. He converted a layup off an inbounds pass, hit a three-pointer that pulled the Bruins into a tie and nudged them ahead by one point when he made one of two free throws.
But Akron closed the half with four straight points and nearly added to its lead after a Jaquez turnover late.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism