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Bruins in Paris

Balance of veterans, freshmen lead UCLA men’s basketball to 3rd straight Sweet 16

Senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. attempts a layup in UCLA men’s basketball’s win over Northwestern on Saturday. (Anika Chakrabarti/Photo editor)

By Francis Moon

March 21, 2023 3:39 p.m.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. has been in this spot before.

The senior guard/forward – en route to his third straight Sweet 16 – recognizes the road ahead of him better than most.

“If we lose now, our entire season’s done,” Jaquez said. “I don’t think it’s very hard to get me going. … We try to get the young guys to understand this – understand that this is a one-and-out tournament, and we don’t want this to end.”

No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball handily took care of No. 15 seed UNC Asheville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday before fighting off a comeback attempt against No. 7 seed Northwestern on Saturday to once again advance past the opening weekend of March Madness. The Bruins reached their 19th Final Four in program history in 2021 but were unable to rekindle the magic last year with a Sweet 16 exit.

Jaquez is one of six regular rotation players for the Bruins that remains from those runs, including redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell and fifth-year guard David Singleton.

For others, however, the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament marked their first introduction to the pressure of a win-or-go-home environment.

Since the loss of its second-leading scorer in junior guard Jaylen Clark to an Achilles injury in UCLA’s regular-season finale, freshman guard Amari Bailey has taken advantage of his increased role on both ends of the floor and has shown no signs of slowing down in his first Big Dance.

After playing in a state championship as a high school freshman with Sierra Canyon, Bailey said stepping on the court for the NCAA Tournament was a full circle moment like no other.

“It was just a surreal feeling,” Bailey said. “I just had chills running through my body. I just wanted to stay focused and stay present in the moment.”

But, if Bailey was feeling nervous about his debut on the big stage, he certainly didn’t show it on the court.

Finishing his regular season recording 9.6 points per game, Bailey upped his average to 18 per contest across three games in the Pac-12 tournament and is UCLA’s second-leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament behind Jaquez thus far, recording 31 combined points across the first two rounds.

Yet, the freshman said he is still working on returning to full strength after missing more than a month this season with a foot injury.

“It’s getting there,” Bailey said. “Not where I want it to be, but this will do for the time being.”

Freshman guard Dylan Andrews has also been called up for a bigger role, playing his most minutes across two consecutive games since early December. With a chance to put away UCLA’s opponent for good Saturday, Andrews was sent to the free-throw line after Singleton got fouled but went to the locker room with an injury.

Andrews calmly swished both, to no surprise of his fellow freshmen.

“Moments like this, he’s built for,” Bailey said. “I’ve seen Dylan shoot thousands of free throws. To see him go up and hit two, in this environment, I’m not surprised by it all. He just steps up to challenges.”

Jaquez praised the Bruins’ contingent of freshmen, which also includes forward Adem Bona, who returned from an injury against Northwestern, and redshirt freshman guard Will McClendon, who missed his true freshman season with a torn ACL and matched his career high in points and minutes against Asheville on Thursday.

“Coach (Mick Cronin) takes pride in the players he recruits to this program. You can see that in the freshmen he’s brought in,” Jaquez said. “They’re so big for us. We wouldn’t be in this position without them. I don’t think they’re freshmen anymore – they stepped up to the plate.”

The Bruins stand as just one of two No. 2 seeds left alongside Texas after a historic weekend filled with upsets, as two No. 1 seeds in Purdue and Kansas went down. Even while dealing with a myriad of injuries in recent weeks, the blue and gold has boosted its production on both offense and defense in the postseason.

Cronin made it clear that UCLA is certainly not better without its Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year but added that it is no coincidence his team has risen to the challenge.

“We’re not better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said. “We train for this time of year. We don’t try to have a good season, and then this is the icing on the cake.”

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Francis Moon | Sports senior staff
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
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