UCLA going back to Sweet Sixteen after dominant effort in 72-56 win over Saint Mary's
Don’t look now but here come the Bruins.
After grinding out a 57-53 win over a scrappy Akron squad, UCLA turned in yet another strong defensive performance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to down 5-seed Saint Mary’s, 72-56, and book a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
Except where the first-round win for the Bruins had warts, this game looked like a classic Bruin stranglehold. Cody Riley, two days after looking unplayable for stretches, turned in his best performance in some time while guarding ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll. Tyger Campbell was everywhere. Johnny Juzang came alive in the second half—finally, to the relief of Bruin Nation. Jules Bernard again knocked down big shots in clutch moments.
And even after Jaime Jaquez Jr. turned his ankle and was forced from the game, UCLA strengthened rather than wilting. The star forward left the game with 6:58 to play in the second half and didn’t return. UCLA was up eight when he exited. It immediately hit the Gaels with a 14-4 run to balloon the lead to 18.
Jaquez’s ankle will be a major point of discussion in preparation for a Sweet Sixteen matchup with North Carolina next Friday (what a matchup that’ll be), but UCLA has once again gotten better with each postseason basketball game.
And that defense. Woah. That’s the thing that can carry the Bruins far.
“We’re a gameplan-specific team, kinda like the Patriots defensively,” head coach Mick Cronin said after. “Like, we don’t always just play Cover 2. Our pick-and-roll coverage was much different today than we do most of the time. I think it just took some time for them to get in the rhythm of doing it and stepping up our intensity.
“Whatever they were to start the game, 6-for-9? From that point on they were 14-for-40. … They’re a high-efficiency team, they’ve got a lot of shooters, great coach. We tried to make them into a non-passing team and make guys score on us off the dribble. Obviously, that’s when the game changed.”
Saint Mary’s opened the game shooting 7-for-10 from the field. (One off, Coach. No worries.) The Bruins then forced 12 straight misses and held the Gaels to just a single pair of free throws over nearly eight minutes of clock.
The Bruins were down seven with 10 minutes to play.
They went into the locker room at the halftime break up seven.
Cronin had Riley guarding Saint Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse in the pick-and-roll. They doubled down on big man Matthias Tass every time he touched it and frustrated him. He hit his scoring average (14 points) but only got off five shots. UCLA was active and swarming, holding the Gaels to just 41% shooting for the game.
“We just thought their pick-and-roll offense was devastating,” Cronin said. “Cody did an unbelievable job on that.”
The big man was plus-two in 23 minutes Thursday night. He was plus-19 in his 28 minutes on Saturday.
On offense, things looked cleaner than they had against Akron.
Cronin was anticipating less trapping and more walling up in the lane, more single coverage for Jaquez.
Over the course of the first 20 minutes, the Bruins got what they wanted. Jaquez scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting. The Gaels could just watch as he knocked down shots.
“I was hoping they’d give him one-on-one coverage,” Cronin said. “I liked our chances.”
And in the locker room at halftime, Cronin told his team the trap was coming second half. The Gaels would look to take the ball out of Jaquez’s hands and force someone else to beat them. Cronin’s presumption was correct and his response was appropriate. The Bruins started countering with flare screens along the baseline for Juzang and Bernard.
“Then these guys took over from that point on,” Cronin said. “We started running more off-the-ball screens for Johnny and Jules. We thought we could get them open off screens today. The big guys did a good job and they knocked down the shots.”
Juzang had a stretch where he knocked in three in a row. He curled off a screen on the right side of the floor, elevated, and dropped in a mid-range jumper. Then did the same on the left side. He flashed a smile heading back up the court. After a rocky close to the season while battling injury, Juzang has started to slowly look more like his old self.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “Just trying to build up.”
Juzang finished with 12, 10 of which came in the second half. Bernard had nine of his 14 in the second half.
One little stretch for Bernard deserves some recognition as well. With 15:35 to play, Saint Mary’s Alex Ducas drilled a triple off a UCLA turnover. The Bruins had been up six just a few possessions earlier, but now the lead was only one and the crowd was starting to get behind the Gaels.
Campbell missed a runner in the lane on the next UCLA possession and Saint Mary’s looked to push it. Ducas, though, was called for a travel, getting caught up between two decisions and shuffling his feet in the process.
Bernard screened for Juzang late in the shot clock. Juzang drove baseline on the right side of the floor but was cutoff and trapped. Juzang kicked it back to Bernard on the wing. He fired and then held form as he watched the shot splash through the nets. Back up four.
And it was just UCLA’s second triple of the game.
Two possessions later, Bernard lost his man on a screener under the basket, flared to the corner, and knocked down another triple.
A 38-37 game became a 46-39 game just like that and Saint Mary’s energy was gone.
And, oh, by the way, Campbell finished with 16 points.
All five Bruins starters shot at least 50% or better from the field. The team, as a whole, shot 57%.
“The togetherness has been great. You can just feel it. It’s really fun to play that way,” Juzang said. “Man, we all love playing with each other. We love to go out there and compete. We’re just playing to win. It’s the best feeling, especially in March. We have so much fun.”
Now, the Bruins get to plan for 8-seed North Carolina next Friday in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tar Heels beat the region’s No. 1, Baylor, earlier on Saturday.
“When we went through our walkthrough today they were up 25. I was curious who the heck the 1-seed was from what I was watching,” Cronin said. “You can’t play much better than Carolina’s playing. They’re shooting the lights out.”
And UCLA will need its defensive form to continue. The two sides were supposed to meet in Vegas in December, but the Bruins COVID issue forced that game to be canceled. It’ll get made up with the stakes as high as possible.
But the distance between then and now should work in the Bruins’ favor. It’ll give Jaquez, who had his ankle worked on under the stands and then returned to the bench for the end of the game, time to recover.
“Trust me, if he can walk, he’ll play,” Cronin said. “Most guys that had what he has would have sat the rest of the season out. He’s had so many sprained ankles, I don’t know how much you can sprain it anymore. We’ll see. Fortunate we’ve got until next Friday.”
If Jaquez can go, Cronin expects him to try. If he can’t, UCLA feels confident in the younger wings it has in Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson. Clark has had huge scoring games for the Bruins this season. Watson was a difference-maker in their first-round win over Akron.
“But, obviously, we play through (Jaquez) a lot on offense,” Cronin said. “Hopefully he plays.”
Cronin and this UCLA squad, though, have handled every bit of adversity thrown at them so far this season. Everyone has dealt with absences. Guys have been in and out of the lineup.
And yet here they are, going back to the Sweet Sixteen, looking again like a team peaking at the right time.