March Madness: North Carolina ends UCLA’s season in Sweet 16 win

This was not the end he envisioned to what seemed like another magical journey only moments earlier.

After he pushed through so much, carrying his team with his shots and spirit while playing on a bad ankle, Jaime Jaquez Jr. finally had to acknowledge it was over.

He stuck the tail of his UCLA jersey in his mouth and glanced around the Wells Fargo Center in the final moments Friday night, no savior in sight.

Extending his misery, Jaquez had to make the long, lonely walk to the free throw line on the opposite end of the court after officials put three-tenths of a second back on the clock so that North Carolina could shoot two meaningless free throws to extend its game-ending push in this NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal.

The outcome appeared headed in a different direction a few minutes earlier, the Bruins leading by three and possibly about to get the ball back after the Tar Heels missed a shot.

Then came the sequence that will haunt the Bruins for an entire offseason.

A crazy save with the ball headed out of bounds. One three-pointer and then another, followed by a tip-in.

UCLA held no late counters in its bid for more magic, its season ending with a 73-66 loss after the Tar Heels scored 12 of the final 14 points.

“They’re heartbroken,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin acknowledged.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell controls the ball against North Carolina.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

North Carolina (27-9) will play 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s on Sunday evening in the regional final after the Peacocks became the first team seeded that low to advance to the Elite Eight by beating Purdue.

UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell waved to the fans on his way off the court, the Bruins (27-8) headed home having fallen short in their bid for a second straight Final Four.

Campbell’s driving layup gave his team a 64-61 lead with 2:07 left. Everything else went North Carolina’s way.

Leading up to the game, Cronin said his team would have to pick between giving up long-range shots or layups, given the way North Carolina spaced the floor with quality shooters and drivers.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) is fouled by North Carolina guard Caleb Love during the first half.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In the game’s critical sequence, the Tar Heels feasted on the former. It started with North Carolina center Armando Bacot saving a missed shot from going out bounds by flipping the ball back to Caleb Love, who rose for a three-pointer that tied the score with 1:44 left.

“That’s going to keep me up at night,” Cronin said of Bacot’s save.

As they had for much of the game, the Bruins went back to Jaquez, who had become their go-to guy over the season’s final weeks before he badly sprained his right ankle toward the end of the second-round victory over Saint Mary’s. He tried to prop up his team once more but missed a three-pointer.

Love then buried another three-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 67-64 lead with with 63 seconds left. After Jaquez missed another jumper, Bacot converted a tip-in to extend North Carolina’s lead to five with 15 seconds left. Campbell drove for a layup but the Bruins fouled Love with seven seconds left and he made two free throws, essentially sealing the Bruins’ fate.

UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) and guard Jules Bernard (1) try to rebound a shot by North Carolina forward Armando Bacot (5) during the first half.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Jaquez took his team’s final shot and missed that as well before UCLA’s Johnny Juzang fouled RJ Davis, leading to those free throws that counted even if they didn’t matter. Jaquez finished with 10 points on five-for-18 shooting, missing his final nine shots.

Jules Bernard led the Bruins with 16 points, Campbell added 15 and Juzang 14.

Love led the Tar Heels with 27 of his 30 points in the second half after making 11 of 24 shots, including six of 13 three-pointers. North Carolina outrebounded UCLA by nine and held a 19-6 edge in second-chance points.

“One hot player can send you home,” Bernard said.

Six days after limping off the court , Jaquez announced that he had fully recovered when he unleashed a couple of dunks in pregame warmups, including one off a lob from a student manager. Jaquez’s jumper at the end of the shot clock pushed UCLA into the lead, sparking a 10-0 push that gave the Bruins a 22-14 advantage.

North Carolina forward Brady Manek (45) celebrates after scoring a basket against UCLA.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

But the Tar Heels delivered the first of many answers, pulling to within 31-28 by halftime.

The teams started trading highlight shots, not to mention the lead, about midway through the second half. UCLA’s Jaylen Clark made a corner three-pointer only to be topped by a deep straightaway three-pointer from Love.

The Bruins appeared to finally have some separation when Bernard drove for a reverse layup and a 56-51 lead. Bruins forward Cody Riley got the ball back with a steal and a “U-C-L-A!” chant broke out as the team set up its offense.

But Jaquez missed a layup and a short jumper and North Carolina rolled off five consecutive points, pulling into a tie on Love’s three-pointer.

The Bruins were teetering early in the second half, Bacot causing all sorts of issues. He powered in for a dunk and took a nifty post feed for a layup that gave the Tar Heels a 34-33 lead, prompting Cronin to whirl and call for center Myles Johnson to replace Riley.

Riley buried a jumper before he departed and Jaquez knocked the ball away from two Tar Heels before converting a breakaway dunk. Johnson followed with a tip-in and the Bruins held a 42-37 lead before North Carolina went on a 7-0 surge fueled by Campbell fouling Davis on a three-point attempt.

These teams were supposed to meet in December before Cronin developed what he called “the shakes” several days before the game, leading to a teamwide coronavirus outbreak that put the season on pause for nearly a month.

The last two weeks, North Carolina has taken on the role of UCLA from a year ago, a big name with a low seed suddenly fighting for respect.

The Tar Heels found it. The Bruins went home.

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