UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) and Johnny Juzang (3) celebrate after beating Alabama 88-78 in overtime of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

‘Bama Falls to UCLA in Sweet 16 Thriller

A thriller, and contender for game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Tournament, saw 11-seed UCLA knock off two-seed Alabama in overtime 88-78. UCLA is now the second team in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Elite Eight after playing in a First Four play-in game.

Alabama came into the 2021 NCAA Tournament in great form. The regular season SEC Champions stormed through Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU to claim their seventh SEC Tournament crown. That form carried into their first two games of the NCAA Tournament.

Comfortable wins against 15-seed Iona and 10-seed Maryland sent the Tide to their eighth Sweet 16 appearance, and first since 2004.

Their opponent did not have it so easy getting here. UCLA squeezed into the NCAA Tournament through the First Four play-in games. Their thriller in overtime against Michigan State saw them advance to play six-seed BYU.

UCLA Head Coach Mick Cronin saw that overtime win as the turning point on the season as the Bruins’ games only would get tougher.

Their nine-point win and ensuing victory over 14-seed Abilene Christian gave them their toughest opponent of the year in Alabama.

Thriller goes to overtime

Alabama forward Alex Reese (3) shoots a three point basket as UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) watches in the second half of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 28, 2021.(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

As the cliché goes, basketball is a game of runs. In their first-four game, UCLA trailed Michigan State by 11 at halftime. In their Sweet 16 matchup, UCLA led Alabama by 11 at halftime. The Tide, who did not score in the final four minutes of the first half, watched UCLA go on a 10-0 run to end the first half. However, Alabama rapidly erased that deficit coming out of the intermission.

After a 11-0 run by Nate Oats’s team, the second half watched the two teams trade punches.

With four seconds remaining in regulation, Alabama solidified this game’s status as a thriller with a dramatic buzzer beater to tie the game. Alex Reese made one shot the entire game, and his three-pointer from the logo sent this game into overtime.

Oats says that is exactly what Reese was in the game to do.

A point of discussion regarding this play was the UCLA decision to not foul. A foul by the Bruins would have sent Alabama to the line to shoot two free throws while down by three, forcing some type of miracle play on an offensive rebound. Cronin did not want to risk fouling a shooter to give the Tide three free throws on a shooting foul.

Despite Reese’s heroics, Alabama could not keep up in the extra frame. UCLA put up 23 points in the five-minute overtime period, while Alabama’s 13 points gave the win to Alabama, 88-78.

Story of the game

Free throws. Free throws cost Alabama this game. As a team, Oats’s squad was 11-25 (40 percent) from the charity stripe. That is 14 points simply left on the table. Oats says the difference could have come down to any one of those 14 misses from the line.

Let’s not take anything away from UCLA. The Bruins entered this game as 6.5-point underdogs. Alabama is a champion of the conference that sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament. UCLA’s leading scorer on the season, Johnny Juzang, fouled out in the second half with two and a half minutes to go. There are simply no excuses for Alabama in this loss.

Oats admits that on Sunday night, Alabama was not good enough to beat the Bruins.

Next up

Alabama’s season, after an impressive run from an underdog basketball program, is over. Alabama cannot just cast this season aside. Moreover, Oats is adamant that this program is headed in the right direction.

However, UCLA’s tournament hopes are still alive. In fact, their next game provides an opportunity for a first trip to the Final Four since 2008, which would be their 17th as a program.

Mick Cronin’s team is enjoying their dramatic journey with these thriller victories. Nevertheless, the Bruins still have work to do.

UCLA will take on one-seed Michigan, who beat Florida State in the Sweet 16, in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night. The winner of that game advances to the Final Four next weekend in Indianapolis.

About Kyle Fansler

Originally from Seminole in the Tampa Bay area, Kyle is a contributor for ESPN Gainesville as well as local NPR and PBS affiliate WUFT. Kyle wants to get into sports with a lofty dream of being a sports broadcaster. He was raised playing soccer and baseball while watching hockey and football, so the knowledge about various sports is fairly extensive.

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