North Carolina ends UCLA quest for another March Madness miracle

North Carolina ends UCLA quest for another March Madness miracle

It was so fast, so furious, so final.

The UCLA basketball team was just moments from returning to the Elite Eight on Friday night, its fight full, its swagger strong.

Then the Bruins were gone in an instant.

The miracle of last season turned on them. The heroes of last season faltered.

UCLA led North Carolina by three points with two minutes left in an East Regional semifinal when a brilliant boxing match devolved into a startling nightmare.

A feisty North Carolina guard named Caleb Love hit a wild three-pointer, bam.

At the other end of the Wells Fargo Center court, the Bruins’ tough forward Jaime Jaquez missed a three-pointer, clank.

Then Love came down and hit another wild three-pointer, boom.

At the other end, Jaquez missed a runner, clunk.

Then a hulking North Carolina center named Armando Bacot tipped in a follow shot that barely crept over the rim, done.

Game over. Moment lost. Dream finished.

The Tar Heels soared to the occasion and stole the game, winning 73-66 and sending UCLA home a step away from consecutive Final Fours.

The difference between this ending and many previous endings for this special Bruins team was startling.

Instead of hugging in joy afterward, they fell into one another’s arms.

Jaquez, who struggled greatly down the stretch while surely nursing a sore ankle that he reinjured last weekend, pulled his jersey up and bit into it in agony. Jules Bernard, who kept the Bruins in the game with hustle and finesse, stared to the ceiling in pain.

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) defends North Carolina’s R.J. Davis. Jaquez, playing on an injured ankle, finished with 10 points. He shot five for 18 from the field.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

While UCLA makes the flight back home, North Carolina sticks around to play Saint Peter’s, the delightfully feisty 15th-seeded Cinderella story of this tournament that brought the roaring fans at Wells Fargo Center to their feet earlier Friday by upsetting third-seeded Purdue.

It will be a David versus Goliath for the ages. The Peacocks are inspiring, they are fun, they’re literally strutting into NCAA history, and the Tar Heels should not look past their undersized figures toward New Orleans and the Final Four.

But if North Carolina bullies Saint Peter’s the way it eventually bullied UCLA, Cinderella won’t last long.

Before the game, North Carolina coach Hubert Davis called it.

“The battle is, can we take advantage of their lack of size and get the ball into the post or attack the basket through post or penetration, or is their perimeter play going to be a factor for us because we’re bigger,” Davis said.

North Carolina big man Armando Bacot (5) battles UCLA guard Peyton Watson (23) at the rim March 25, 2002.

North Carolina big man Armando Bacot (5), who had 14 points and 15 rebounds, battles UCLA guard Peyton Watson at the rim.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

They took advantage, outrebounding UCLA on the offensive boards, 15-8, and outscoring the Bruins in second-chance points, 19-6. It is no coincidence that five of North Carolina’s key eight points in their winning stretch came after the Tar Heels grabbed an offensive rebound.

In the end, the Bruins just weren’t big enough or strong enough, and the North Carolina miracle mashed them.

North Carolina has now won nine of its last 10 games, including a blowout of Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game and an upset of East Region top seed Baylor in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels must be considered a favorite to win the national championship

“I feel like they’ve really bought into who they are as a team and really keying in on what they need to do to win games, and we’ve seen that over the past few weeks with them,” Bernard said before the game. “They’re a great team. They’re different from who they were before, and we’re just prepared to fight and claw and do whatever it takes to bring out a win.”

They indeed fought, and clawed, but it just wasn’t enough, even though at times it seemed as if it would be plenty.

Bruins fans react in the final seconds of UCLA's loss to North Carolina on March 25, 2022.

Bruins fans react in the final seconds of UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina in Philadelphia.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After UCLA took a three-point lead at halftime, in the second half things got crazy, two great teams firing back and forth, two historical giants shaking the floor in south Philly.

The game heated to a boil early in the half when Jaquez stole the ball at midcourt and raced down for a flying dunk off that bad ankle. Johnny Juzang, who is supposed to be struggling defensively, then blocked Leaky Black and led to a Myles Johnson tip-in at the other end.

UCLA led by five, North Carolina fired back with clutch shots and fighting rebounds, but the Bruins kept the pressure on. Juzang hit a three, Jaylen Clark hit a three, Tyger Campbell hit a layup, they matched every Tar Heels punch with a punch.

With 7:35 left, the score was tied at 56-56, but UCLA kept pushing, grabbing the lead on a Campbell layup and holding on for a few minutes until North Carolina came back again and regained the lead on a Brady Manek three-pointer, giving North Carolina a 61-60 edge with 4:16 left. But UCLA wouldn’t quit, and Campbell’s spinning layup gave them a 64-61 lead with 2:07 remaining.

“Two big-time programs meeting in the Sweet 16 on this stage, it will be a fun game,” North Carolina’s Black had predicted.

He was right, until, for a UCLA team that will spend the summer in shock, the bottom dropped out, and the season disappeared.

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