UCLA was expected to have a short stay in the NCAA Tournament, but the Bruins stand just one win away from reaching the Final Four.
The 11th-seeded Bruins aim to win their fifth straight tourney game when they attempt to upset top-seeded Michigan in Tuesday night’s East Regional final at Indianapolis.
The Bruins (21-9) are attempting to join Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 as the only schools to go from being relegated to the NCAA Tournament’s First Four to crashing the Final Four. They earned their date with the Wolverines by posting an exhilarating 88-78 overtime win over second-seeded Alabama on Sunday.
“There’s many times we could have packed it in, but I told them they’ve put up with me for two years trying to pound into them toughness and competitive spirit,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “They allowed me to do it, and you’re seeing the results right now.”
The Bruins were mired in a four-game losing streak before starting their tournament run by defeating Michigan State in overtime in the First Four. They have followed up with double-digit victories over BYU, Abilene Christian and the Crimson Tide.
UCLA has its eyes on reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2008 when it made the last of three straight such appearances under former coach Ben Howland.
The Bruins will again be in the position of needing to score an upset when they play Michigan (23-4), which is playing in the Elite Eight for the fourth time in its last seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
UCLA sophomore swingman Jaime Jaquez Jr. said to go ahead and slap the underdog label on his team because he says the highly confident club won’t wilt under the pressure.
“I don’t want to say invincibility. Everyone is beatable,” Jaquez said. “Everyone has good nights and bad nights. We’re definitely a confident team. We definitely believe in ourselves, even when no one else was or did. So we just believe in each other every single day and knew, if we got this opportunity, we’re going to take full advantage.”
Michigan certainly is operating on all cylinders after trampling fourth-seeded Florida State 76-58 on Sunday.
The Wolverines began their push with wins over Texas Southern and LSU but ramped up their effort against the Seminoles, and the whipping included a 50-28 edge in points in the paint.
“We knew coming in that they were going to switch a lot of ball screens and basically everything,” sophomore guard Franz Wagner said. “So we tried to move the ball. I think a lot of times people get in trouble just holding the ball and dribbling the whole time. So I think we moved the ball pretty well and then attacked close-outs.”
The stellar performance gave Juwan Howard an Elite Eight berth in his second season as Michigan coach.
“As a player, I’ve been to three Elite Eights,” said Howard, referring to the school’s Fab Five era in the early 1990s. “So Michigan has had a lot of success in the basketball program. It’s just beautiful to see that all the hard work is paying off this year.”
The Wolverines are experiencing their March Madness success without standout senior forward Isaiah Livers (foot). Howard said he remains out indefinitely.
This marks the fifth time the schools have met in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins won three of the previous four meetings, including a 91-80 win in the 1965 national championship game when Gail Goodrich poured in 42 points.
–Field Level Media