UCLA men’s basketball secures Final Four spot with upset victory over Michigan
No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball upset No. 1 seed Michigan on Tuesday to advance to its first FInal Four since 2008. Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang dropped 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting, working through a right ankle injury sustained in the second half. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
|No. 11 seed UCLA||51|
|No. 1 seed Michigan||49|
By Sam Connon
March 30, 2021 9:22 p.m.
This post was updated March 31 at 1:50 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — The buzzer sounded. Chris Smith started to run onto the court and wave his towel in celebration.
The only problem was that the Bruins hadn’t won the game – at least, not yet.
The referees put 0.5 seconds left on the clock, giving the Wolverines one more chance to complete their comeback and send the Bruins home packing.
Guard Franz Wagner caught the inbounds pass and put up a prayer as the final horn went off.
And after all that, the shot clanked off the rim and the Bruins had clinched themselves a spot in the Final Four.
“This is great, but we’ve got work to do,” said coach Mick Cronin. “And hopefully I’ll be around to keep trying to chase the tradition and the expectations at UCLA.”
No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball (22-9, 13-6 Pac-12) upset No. 1 seed Michigan (23-5, 14-3 Big Ten) in Indianapolis on Tuesday night, holding on for a 51-49 Elite Eight victory. In such a defensive game – the Wolverines scored fewer than 50 points for the first time all season and didn’t hit a field goal in the final five minutes – it was sophomore guard Johnny Juzang who led the way with 28 points.
Cronin, who will be coaching in his first-ever Final Four on Saturday against overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga, said the second Juzang signed with UCLA as a transfer last April, he secretly told his dad this would be the best team he ever coached in 25 years of Division I basketball.
Juzang secured the East Region Most Outstanding Player Award following the contest after averaging 21.6 points per game through five tournament outings, and Cronin said his performance Tuesday proved how he’s more than the shooter he was known as before he arrived in Westwood.
“He’s more of a scorer than a shooter, and I think that’s what he got labeled at Kentucky, and I wanted him to get rid of that mindset,” Cronin said. “I knew for us to evolve, he was the guy that was going to have to evolve for us.”
Behind Juzang’s 18 first-half points, the Bruins took a 27-23 lead into halftime. They stretched that lead to as many as nine early in the second, but Juzang went down with a right ankle injury going for a rebound and limped his way back to the bench.
With UCLA’s leading scorer out of the game, the Wolverines scored four unanswered and got their crowd rowdy thanks to a few buckets in the post by center Hunter Dickinson.
Juzang hobbled back onto the court after the next media timeout, but Michigan kept the run going and closed the UCLA lead to one.
Even with the game getting tighter by the minute, Juzang said he knew right as he went down that he needed to get back out on the floor to close things out.
“I’ll feel it tonight, but with the adrenaline, I wasn’t too worried about it,” Juzang said. “It’s March Madness, so I was trying to get out there as quick as I can to help my brothers.”
After a back-and-forth couple of minutes down the stretch, Juzang went to the line with the Bruins still clinging to that one-point lead and six seconds left on the clock.
He drilled the first, and even after missing the second, UCLA held on and escaped with the win, clinching its first trip to the Final Four since 2008. It will now join Virginia Commonwealth as the only other team to make the Final Four after starting its March Madness journey in the First Four.
“April 9, 2019, I told you, ‘I spell fun W-I-N,’” Cronin said. “You gotta find a way to win, and these guys are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their life back in that locker room because they won.”
The Bruins had just four points in the first 10 minutes of the game and were in the midst of a scoring drought that lasted nearly seven minutes before Juzang got the ball rolling. Juzang ended his team’s cold spell with a floater in the paint, then continued to score UCLA’s next 10 points, narrowing the deficit to one.
A pair of free throws from sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. gave the Bruins a lead they would hold onto for the remainder of the first half. Juzang scored two-thirds of UCLA’s 27 first-half points, and Jaquez and redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell were the only other Bruins to get on the board in the opening frame.
Campbell wound up scoring 11 points, but no other UCLA player scored more than four. Michigan’s 14 turnovers, on the other hand, led to 14 Bruin points, which ended up making all the difference in the one-score game.
“In a low-possession game, to create 14 turnovers, is really why we won,” Cronin said. “Say we force eight, they get six more shots off, they probably beat us. Unbelievable effort by our kids defensively.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba didn’t record a single point, but he forced one of those turnovers by serving as an anchor in the paint for the Bruin defense in a career-high 20 minutes.
Nwuba was only in the game because redshirt junior forward Cody Riley was in foul trouble all game long, and he finally picked up his fifth in the final minute. Once Riley and his teammates got their Final Four gear after the game, Riley jumped up on the scorer’s table to pump up the UCLA fans in attendance.
The chants that had been missing all season in a year hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic came to life – ”Let’s go Bruins,” “UC-LA,” Eight Claps and more – and the Bruins will get to dance just a little longer.
“It’s incredible, man, surreal,” Juzang said. “Something growing up you just dream about and to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, makes it just so wonderful. It’s beautiful.”