“Juzang in the paint, floater. It’s short, got it back, and ties it with three seconds to go. Gonzaga has time to do something. Suggs for the win. Ohhhhh unbelievable.” This is the final sequence of UCLA’s heartbreaking defeat to Gonzaga in the April 3rd, 2021 NCAA Tournament Final Four and the commentary heard by 15 million people nationwide by TBS announcer Brain. This historic game marked the end of UCLA’s further historic Cinderella run and while it didn’t end how the Bruin community would have hoped, there is a lot to be proud of and so much to be excited about moving forward. Bruin nation, keep your heads high.
While UCLA stumbled through the final few games of the Pac-12 regular season, it left many basketball analysts with tempered expectations for the university’s tournament run. Heading into the tournament’s First Four play in-game as underdogs, UCLA was ready to make a statement versus Michigan State in a battle of the 11 seeds. Facing an 11 point deficit at halftime, UCLA showcased their heart and determination when they staged a comeback behind Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s 27 points and Johnny Juzang’s 21 points. The final few minutes of this game had every Bruin fan on the edge of their seats, if not standing, as the two teams dueled it out with back and forth baskets. UCLA was able to take control of this game in overtime and secure the 86-80 win, however, Johnny Juzang’s status for the next game was left up in the air after an apparent ankle injury. Luckily, the injury would prove to be insignificant, as Juzang and the Bruin’s success continued into the round of 64.
Just two days later, the Mick Cronin lead Bruins laced up their hightops for a matchup versus the 6th seeded Brigham Young University (BYU) team. This game showed us a different side of the UCLA basketball program as they dominated from start to finish en route to a 73-62 victory. The Bruins were up early due to some efficient shooting and they maintained this lead through most of the game. The three J’s, Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard, and Johnny Juzang, combined for 56 of UCLA’s 73 points, Juzang being responsible for 27 of them. Another strong performance out of an underdog, under-respected UCLA team. However, after this game, the basketball community began to take notice.
Due to a surprising Texas upset in the round of 64, UCLA got a favorable round of 32 matchups versus the 14th seeded Abilene Christian University (ACU). The Bruins routed ACU by a score of 67-47 as they controlled the game the entire afternoon. Juzang, once again, had a game-high 17 points, Jaime Jaquez Jr. chipped in 12 points and Cody Riley was able to contribute 12 points as well as 12 rebounds. This was a great team victory for the Bruins, they played phenomenal defense, and showed the basketball world that they should be viewed as true threats in the Sweet 16.
Once again an underdog, UCLA came out hot in the first half versus number 2 seeded Alabama. The half came to an end on a 15-4 Bruin scoring run, resulting in a 40-29 halftime score. Alabama must have gotten fired up in the locker room, as they came out to start the second half on an 11-0 scoring run, tying the game at 40-40 in under 5 minutes. The rest of the regulation was a captivating back and forth battle between two strong basketball teams, but 40 minutes wasn’t enough to settle this contest as Alabama hit a game-tying 3-pointer as time expired. In overtime, the Bruins never looked back, outscoring the Crimson Tide 23-13 to win the game 88-78. The Bruins had six players score in double digits and had once again shocked the basketball community. Westwood anxiously awaited their Elite 8 matchup.
UCLA was now set to battle number 1 seeded, fellow Jordan brand school, Michigan University in the Elite 8. Once again, the majority of the basketball community expected Michigan to win this game, and Bruin fans were certainly concerned after the first few minutes. UCLA fell behind 13-6 in the opening minutes and looked stagnant offensively. However, Johnny Juzang’s hand heated up once again as he carried UCLA with 28 points and secured the 51-49 victory. In the closing seconds, UCLA narrowly survived two three-point, game-winning attempts by Michigan on their way to making history as the second team ever to make the Final Four after playing in the First Four. This monumental victory prompted celebratory parades throughout the streets of Westwood. But one thing was on the Bruins’ minds: number 1 seeded Gonzaga.
UCLA versus Gonzaga will never be forgotten. This was one of the best college basketball games in recent history, featuring the undefeated Gonzaga team led by Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme as well as the hottest team in the tournament, Johnny Juzang’s UCLA. The Bruins offense shot lights out and was able to control most of the first half, however, the Gonzaga Bulldogs secured a 1 point lead for a 45-44 halftime score. In the second half, Gonzaga started to separate from UCLA as their lead stretched. But the Bruins demonstrated their continuous determination as they battled back and tied the game with only a few minutes remaining. After a questionable charge call on Johnny Juzang, UCLA was headed to yet another overtime game. In overtime, Juzang was able to tie the game at 90 apiece, when Suggs hit the most memorable and improbable shot of the tournament, sending UCLA home, Gonzaga to the national championship, and preserving Gonzaga’s historic undefeated season.
Looking back on this Cinderella run, UCLA outperformed everybody’s expectations. They restored the UCLA basketball program to its rightful place, proved Mick Cronin’s coaching abilities, and put the whole world on notice of the future of Bruin basketball. Johnny Juzang was on the All-Tournament First Team and exponentially increased his draft stock. His status remains up in the air, but the UCLA community is hopeful he will return to run it back next season. With every other starting player set to return, Chris Smith’s return from injury and final year of eligibility as well as a strong recruiting class, UCLA is on a path towards NCAA domination. This current Bruin team has been ranked second in ESPN’s Way Too Early 2021-2022 rankings whereas last season they went unranked. Two five-star recruits in the next two years, Peyton Watson and Amari Bailey will certainly contribute to this reinvigorated basketball program and this year’s tournament success, as well as the Jordan brand deal, will certainly help the recruitment process as well. At this point, all of UCLA already has its eyes on next season. And all of UCLA has one goal: to bring the National Championship trophy back to Pauley Pavillion where it belongs.