Part I: The Revival of a Program
For many moons, the Pauley Pavilion sat empty. Void of crowds, fans, and most importantly...expectations. The first two of these factors were merely products of a long offseason and a worldwide pandemic. Expectations, on the other hand, had been absent for much longer. UCLA had not had expectations for its men's basketball team since the year of the Ball.
Way back in 2016 Lonzo Ball took the Pac-12 by storm. His presence on the court stage brought notoriety to his family and kicked off the Ball Dynasty in earnest. Ball and the talented squad around him gave the Bruins hope for something they hadn't achieved in 21 years, a national title. It was not meant to be though, as the Ball and his Bruins were thoroughly beaten by the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen. Just like that the run was over, Lonzo ball went to the draft and left UCLA in the throes of mediocrity. Over the next two years, the Bruins would go 38-28 and coach Steve Alford would be given the pink slip in the middle of his sixth season at the helm in 2019. The program looked as though it would reside in the depths of the Pac-12 for the foreseeable future.
Enter Mick Cronin, a man who had turned Cincinnati into a contender over the course of his tenure with the Bearcats. Regarded as one of the up-and-coming stars in the college basketball coaching world, Cronin immediately went to work to rebuild the program. Under his tutelage, the Bruins went 19-12 in 2019-2020 and 22-10 in 2020-2021. In 2021, Cronin and company rolled through the March Madness tournament all the way to the Final Four. The team came incredibly close to knocking off the favorite, Gonzaga, and completing the cinderella-run. However, in the end, UCLA fell short. This is not the end of the story though, the magical run in March gave the Bruins faithful hope for the coming season. Impressively, the team returned nearly all of the players that made the tournament run possible; including Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, and Jules Bernard. This breadth of talent secured the Bruins the preseason number two ranking in the AP Poll, the highest UCLA had been ranked to start the season in 14 years. The return to contender status coincided with the return of fans to the stands. No doubt Pauley Pavilion would be packed game after game in order to see the mighty Bruins in action. And on this faithful night, the stands were indeed packed to the gills to witness this instant classic unfold.
Part II: A Challenger Emerges
Every memorable story needs a great villain. The villain need not be an entity motivated by malintent or the prospect of evil-doing, rather the villain can just be a mighty foe or obstacle obstructing the path to victory. For the UCLA Bruins that mighty foe was none other than the Villanova Wildcats. Villanova has been on an extended run of success for many years as the program had won national titles in 2016 and 2018. They are perennial contenders for the championship year in and year out. Much like the Bruins, the Wildcats returned many integral players from the season prior. Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, and Justin Moore would comprise the heart of the Wildcats' lineup for the year. This multitude of talent and the presence of future hall of fame coach Jay Wright impressed the pollers enough to bestow the number four ranking in the nation to the Wildcats. The two programs were destined to clash in a battle of the titans, with the collision course being set for November 12th. Only one team could emerge victoriously and secure a highly-coveted win early in the season. And so, the stage is set for what will soon become an instant classic.
Part III: The Game Unfolds
The battle started innocently enough with both teams exchanging early blows. As the first half dragged on though, the Wildcats began to falter. The shots were not dropping and the Bruins were beginning to heat up from the field. A trio of threes and a Jules Bernard two-point jump shot had UCLA up by nine (10-19) with under ten minutes to go in the first half. It was at this point that the Wildcats', spearheaded by floor general Collin Gillespie, turned on the gas and outscored the Bruins 20-6 over the following seven minutes to take a 30-25 lead. And where was Johnny Juzang? The heart and soul of UCLA was missing in action. Only he could stop the bleeding. With under a minute to go, Mr. Juzang entered the fray and scored back-to-back buckets to put the Bruins up 32-30 at the half.
The first half had been wild, full of swings and runs, but the second half would take the cake. The first ten minutes of the second half was a heated back and forth clash as baskets were scored in bunches. 47 combined points were scored in those ten minutes. The game felt as though it had swung decisively in Villanova's favor at the 9:20 mark when Collin Gillespie nailed a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 60-50 advantage. The Bruins badly needed a run to chip away at the double-digit deficit and time was running out. *Eye of the Tiger starts to play* This is the moment that Junior guard Tyger Campbell decided to take center stage. Some say he has the heart of a lion, I say he has the heart of a tiger. The veteran guard hit back-to-back threes in under 40 seconds to pull the Bruins right back into the game.
Another back and forth ensued until we finally make it to the under four timeout with the Wildcats clinging to a 63-61 lead. The titanic struggle continued until finally with just over 30 seconds to go, Jules Bernard banked one in off the glass to even up the score at 67 apiece.
A nail-biting possession on the other end nearly put Villanova back on top, but the ball did not go through the hoop. This game was going to overtime.
Villanova grabbed an early lead in OT, but the Bruins were though messing around. The team turned on the afterburners and lit up the Nova defense. In total, UCLA scored 19 points over the five minutes of overtime. The Wildcats could not withstand the barrage and fell 77-86 in what was the game of the year (up to this point).
Part IV: Conclusions
Both teams played their hearts out, but in the end, UCLA emerged victorious in the battle of top-four teams. For UCLA, this game proved that last year's run through the tournament was not a fluke. The Bruins are back and they are good. It will take a complete team effort from an opponent to beat this Bruins team on any given night. For Villanova, although the loss stings, the Wildcats showed us that they are still an excellent team who just couldn't put this game away when they had the chance. Villanova will rebound and won't make the same mistake again if there two teams were to meet in the tournament.
Next Big Games for These Squads:
Villanova will play #18 Tennessee on November 20th
UCLA will play #1 Gonzaga on November 23rd