UCLA pulls off rare NCAA tournament feat, beating a buzzer beater

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

INDIANAPOLIS – There are certain games each March that instantly earn a spot in a time capsule. They levitate there via searing momentum swings, shots that elicit visceral reactions and no-no-no-yes shot making.

The overtime thriller on Sunday night between No. 2 Alabama and No. 11 UCLA should be shipped to that place immediately, stored for future generations to appreciate sport as dramatic art. It captured all the quintessential March essences with eight lead changes, 11 ties and a game-tying buzzer beater at the end of regulation that will be in heavy rotation on CBS for much of the next decade.

But what will make UCLA’s 83-72 overtime upset of Alabama so enduring is that it featured the rare March emotional counter-punch of a team overcoming an iconic shot and figuring out a way to still win.

Imagine Missouri coming back to beat Tyus Edney in 1995 or Ole Miss countering the Bryce Drew play in 1998. March immortality leans heavily toward the moment, not the response to the moment.

So after Alabama’s Alex Reese provided that wondrously familiar last-second moment — a gasp-inducing, 26-foot game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime — UCLA pulled off the rarest of March feats. The Bruins stared down potential infamy — squandering a double-digit lead and Mick Cronin’s failure to clearly articulate an up-three fouling strategy — and soldiered on after absorbing the most violent of March haymakers.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 28: The UCLA Bruins celebrate after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 28: The UCLA Bruins celebrate after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“They bailed me out,” said Cronin, who avoids being the forever face of fouling in the waning seconds leading by three points. “Shoot, they played as good in overtime as you could possibly play.”

UCLA bolted out by scoring the first seven points in overtime, and forward Jaime Jaquez’s step-back 3-pointer with 97 seconds left iced the game for the Bruins. “Those are definitely shots I practiced at the park,” Jaquez said. “Just imagining being in March Madness.”

Jaquez and junior guard Jules Bernard finished with 17 points, two of six Bruins in double figures. The Bruins have emerged in this tournament with a potent mix of Cronin’s hallmark defensive intensity and a more skilled roster to play a less grinding style of offense than his teams at Cincinnati.

That collective offense — including a Tyger Campbell pick-6 steal and layup — led to the relatively drama-less overtime. “I don't have an answer for why it didn't go well in overtime,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I don't know if I'm even going to watch this game, to be honest with you.”

Cronin is such a defensive-minded coach that he joked about his players “dealing with a short Irishman telling you to get in a defensive stance.” That famous defensive intensity helped limit Alabama’s defiant strength, as its entire offense revolves around 3-point shooting. The Tide finished 7 for 28 from 3-point range on the day, with UCLA never letting them dictate tempo.

For Alabama fans, the Reese 3-pointer — his only points of the game — was needed because the Tide couldn’t hit free throws. This game will long be bemoaned along University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa as the game Alabama bricked away perhaps the best shot at a Final Four in school history. The Tide hit just 11 of 25, 44% for a team that shot 72% on the season.

The worst moment for Alabama came when SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones missed three of his four free-throw attempts in the final 36 seconds, including bricking a pair with 6.8 seconds left. He finished the day 2 of 7.

“It happens,” Oats said. “It's sports.”

The win carved out some unique history for a UCLA program that has won 11 national titles and seen just about everything in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins are just the second team to start the NCAA tournament in the First Four and advance to the Elite Eight, joining VCU. They’re also just the third No. 11 seed to ever beat a No. 2, joining LSU in 1986 and Xavier in 2017.

UCLA plays top-seeded Michigan on Tuesday night, and the game offers a chance for the program’s first Final Four since Ben Howland made three consecutively from 2006-08. This all comes in just Cronin’s second season, which ended with four straight losses prior to the NCAA tournament and featured the loss of the program’s top recruit to the G League (Daishen Nix) and leading returning scorer (Chris Smith) to an ACL tear.

UCLA entered Sunday tested all year by close games, adversity, and over time built enough collective scar tissue that it didn’t flinch when it had every reason to.

“We knew that we had nothing to worry about it,” Jaquez said of the Alabama shot to force overtime. “This is March. It happens all the time.”

Well, actually, it doesn’t really happen all the time. While UCLA’s response can’t be distilled into a single immortal highlight, the win will be remembered for a long time.

“I’ve been on the other side of this,” Cronin said, empathizing with Alabama's loss. “It's like driving off a cliff. It’s excruciating.”

This win won’t levitate all the way to the annals of Edney’s buzzer beater or any of UCLA’s titles. But the Bruins' ability to see-saw the momentum after the buzzer beater has provided the program’s most memorable victory in more than a decade. And there’s just enough moxie, skill and guile in this UCLA team to hint at more frozen moments to come.

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