Upset-savvy Bruins stem Tide, claim Elite 8 spot

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INDIANAPOLIS — Ten days ago, UCLA went into halftime of its First Four game against Michigan State with an 11-point deficit. The Bruins had ended the regular season with four straight losses and backed into the NCAA tournament, and their trip to Indiana looked to be a short one.

Ten days later, UCLA is 40 minutes from the Final Four.

The Bruins, a No. 11 seed, continued their pseudo-Cinderella run on Sunday night, beating No. 2 seed Alabama in overtime 88-78. They become the second First Four team to advance to the Elite Eight — and the first since VCU went to the Final Four in 2011. It also guaranteed the Pac-12 will have three teams participating in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2001.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, now you’ve been to an Elite Eight.’ That’s not why I came to UCLA,” coach Mick Cronin said. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the NBA, they make fun of people that have rings that say conference champion. There’s only one. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion. So for me, we’ve got to win three more games.”

Led by hot shooting from Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, UCLA took an 11-point lead into halftime — an advantage that evaporated within the first five minutes of the second half, courtesy of an 11-0 run by Alabama. Despite the Crimson Tide getting back into the game, things were still tilted in UCLA’s direction. The contest was being played in mostly a half-court setting, limiting Alabama’s transition opportunities. The Crimson Tide also were really struggling from the perimeter.

The final minutes of regulation were back and forth, but two missed free throws by Alabama’s Herbert Jones looked to seal the win for UCLA. David Singleton buried two free throws with four seconds left to give UCLA a three-point lead.

Alabama inbounded the ball to Jahvon Quinerly, but instead of fouling him, UCLA forced him to give the ball up — and he found an open Alex Reese in the middle of the floor. Reese caught the pass, turned and buried a 28-footer with 0.4 seconds left to send it to overtime.

“I’m a foul guy,” Cronin said of the decision to play the final possession straight up. “My biggest concern was that, when we went to foul, they were going to shoot a half-court shot, and we were going to foul shooting a 3-point shot.”

Alabama forced an overtime period and had all the momentum. UCLA was once again fighting an uphill battle to stay alive. From the Bruins’ standpoint, though, this was a situation they had found themselves in before. They went to overtime in the First Four game against the Spartans and had been in five overtime games already this season.

Instead of sulking about the late heroics from Reese, UCLA threw the first punch of overtime, scoring the first seven points en route to a 23-point explosion over the five extra minutes.

“We knew that we had nothing to worry about it,” UCLA junior Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “This is March. It happens all the time.”

“You don’t win every single game in overtime, but we know we’ve been in that position before, and we knew we get another five minutes to try to win this game,” Jaquez later added. “So we knew we had to be the toughest team out there, and that’s going to be the reason we won the game, is being the toughest team. Like I said, we’ve been in those positions before. You don’t win every single game, but it’s a position we’re very comfortable with.”

UCLA had six players finish in double figures, led by Jaquez’s 17 points. The 6-foot-7 wing, who scored 27 in the First Four win over Michigan State, started slowly on Sunday, with four points in the first half, but he hit a number of big shots in the second half and overtime — including a 3-pointer with 1:37 left in the contest that gave UCLA a seven-point lead and sealed the win.

“Those are definitely shots I practiced at the park, just imagining being in March Madness, getting the go-ahead bucket like that,” Jaquez said. “But, yeah, my mentality, I saw the shot clock winding down, and I knew we needed a big shot. So I just took the shot.”

Perhaps the biggest key to the game was Alabama’s struggles shooting the ball. The Crimson Tide entered the game as one of the most 3-point-reliant teams in the country, and they went just 7-for-28 from behind the arc. UCLA outshot them from 3-point range, something that rarely happens to Alabama.

An even bigger eyesore for the Crimson Tide was their performance from the free-throw line. They went 11-for-25 from the foul line, including a stretch at the end of regulation and beginning of overtime when they missed six of seven from the stripe.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Alabama going 11-for-25 from the foul throw line was the worst free throw performance (minimum of 25 attempts) in the NCAA tournament since Kansas went 12-for-30 in the 2003 national championship game against Syracuse.

“We needed one more free throw in regulation to win it, but it’s tough. It’s the game of basketball. You’ve got to make them,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “We put a big point of emphasis on guys making them. I thought we had a lot of guys improve dramatically. Herb Jones is a great free throw shooter all year. He put a ton of time in all offseason, all year, really, in the gym. He’s a good free throw shooter. Didn’t happen to make them tonight.”

UCLA moves on to face the region’s top-seed, Michigan, which dominated 4-seed Florida State in the East’s other Sweet 16 matchup on Sunday.

The Bruins are looking to be the fifth 11-seed to make the Final Four and the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four. So while it’s Cronin’s first Elite Eight as a college head coach, their goals haven’t been met quite yet.

“We’re not finished,” Jaquez said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

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