INDIANAPOLIS — UCLA has made more trips to the Final Four than any program but North Carolina.
None of the 19 was more surprising than this one.
After sneaking into the NCAA Tournament off four straight losses, and barely surviving Michigan State in their First Four game, the Bruins took down top-seeded Michigan on Tuesday night to continue a run for the ages.
Johnny Juzang poured in 28 points while playing most of the second half on a hurt ankle, and coach Mick Cronin’s bunch of stubborn overachievers survived a set of nail-biting misses by the Wolverines in the final seconds for a 51-49 victory that made the Bruins only the fifth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals.
“These guys get all the credit,” said Cronin, who had never been to the Elite Eight in 18 years as a college head coach, much less the Final Four. “Unbelievable heart, toughness. Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it.”
They’ll be big underdogs again Saturday night: Overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga is up next.
“We know our next assignment is tough,” Cronin said, “but their resiliency is unbelievable.”
The Wolverines (23-5) missed their final eight shots, including a 3-pointer by Mike Smith with a couple seconds left and another by Franz Wagner at the buzzer, sending the Bruins (22-9) flying off the bench in a wild celebration.
They’re the second First Four team to make the Final Four after VCU a decade ago.
“This is something growing up you dream about,” said Juzang, the first player to score at least half of his team’s points in a regional final victory since Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson in 1960. “It’s just so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful sharing this moment with your brothers.”
After dictating the pace all game, eschewing the slick style of Michigan in favor of a rock fight, it only seemed fitting that the underdog Bruins – having won two tourney games in overtime already – would take another to the buzzer.
They were clinging to a 50-49 lead when Michigan called a timeout with 19 seconds to go, intending to set up the game’s final shot. Wolverines coach Juwan Howard set up an open 3-point look for the cold-shooting Wagner, who missed almost everything, and Eli Brooks also missed a put-back before UCLA finally corralled the rebound.
It was merely the start of a chaotic finish.
The Wolverines quickly fouled and sent Juzang to the line, where he missed the second of his two free throws with 6.3 seconds left. Michigan grabbed the rebound and called another timeout. This time, Howard had Smith race up court and unload a good look from the wing that was halfway down before bouncing back out.
The buzzer sounded and UCLA began to celebrate, only for the officials to put a half-second back on the clock.
That was enough time for Michigan to inbound one last time to Wagner, who again let fly a 3-pointer that clanked off the iron – and finally gave the Bruins freedom to spring from their benches for their first Final Four trip since 2008.
“We got the look, got the shot we wanted,” Howard said. “There’s not much you can do with a point-five, but that shot, it was a nice little heave. Unfortunately it didn’t go in.”
Hunter Dickinson led the Wolverines (23-5) with 11 points, but nothing came easy for the Big Ten freshman of the year – or anyone else in maize and blue. They were 3 of 11 beyond the arc, shot 39% overall and couldn’t make one at the end.
“They played extremely hard. They earned that win,” Brooks said. “I’m not going to take anything away from them. They made everything challenging.”
The No. 1 seed in the East Region, the Wolverines had confidently strolled onto the court about 30 minutes before officials even rolled out balls for pregame warmups. They almost looked bored as they milled around, some listening to their music, others catching glimpses of the Southern California-Gonzaga game on the screens hanging over the court.
The Bulldogs won so easily it must have lulled them to sleep.
Instead of the crisp passing, unselfishness and eye-pleasing positionless basketball that carried Michigan to three easy wins in the tournament, there was sloppy ballhandling, off-balance jumpers and breakdowns on defense.
Then there was Juzang, who scored 14 of the Bruins’ first 16 points. Whether it was a step-back 3-pointer, floater in the lane or drive to the bucket, one of March’s breakout stars simply willed UCLA to a 27-23 halftime lead.
“Every point he got,” Howard said with a shake of his head, “he worked hard for.”
The Bruins stretched their lead to 34-25 before Juzang twisted his right ankle during a rebounding scrum, sending him to the bench to get it taped. He was only out a couple of minutes, but Michigan took advantage. Dickinson and Brooks each had back-to-back baskets, wiping out most of UCLA’s hard-earned lead.
Then, two programs quite familiar with college basketball’s biggest stage kept trading blows the rest of the way.
“It was a Big Ten battle royal game,” Cronin said. “Just an awesome, awesome effort by our kids. All credit goes to them.”
Gonzaga has won two of three against the Bruins, though they’ve split their two meetings in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA won a regional semifinal in 2006 and the Bulldogs returned the favor in the 2015 regional semifinals.