UCLA and USC will both seek berths in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four Tuesday, the first time that has happened.
The 11th-seeded Bruins (21-9) will face top-seeded Michigan (23-4) in the East Regional final at 6:57 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The sixth-seeded Trojans (25-7) will face top-seeded Gonzaga (29-0) in the West Regional final at 4:15 p.m. Both games will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis but on different courts and be televised by TBS.
“We believe we can beat anybody,” USC senior guard Isaiah White said after scoring a team-high 22 points in an 82-68 victory over seventh-seeded Oregon in a West Region semifinal Sunday, advancing the Trojans to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2001.
The number of times USC has reached the Elite 8 and Final Four is subject to interpretation. The Trojans played in the 1954 Final Four. In 1940, when the tournament consisted of eight teams, USC defeated Colorado, 38-32, in a West Regional semifinal, then lost to Kansas, 43-42, in the regional final.
Sunday, the Trojans took the lead for good midway through the first half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and led 41-26 at halftime, including a 12-0 run over a span of 2:57. USC held its biggest lead, 64-43, with 9:58 remaining. The Ducks’ 11-0 run cut the deficit to 69-60 with 3:52 left but they were unable to get any closer.
Oddsmakers have made the Trojans an 8 1/2 to 9 point underdog. The ABC News-owned data prediction website FiveThirtyEight gives USC a 25% chance of winning.
UCLA upset second-seeded Alabama, 88-78, in overtime in a East Regional semifinal Sunday to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2008 and 22nd time in school history. The Bruins have reached the Final Four 18 times, most recently in 2008.
“It feels amazing to advance to the Elite Eight, but … we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” UCLA guard-forward Jamie Jaquez Jr. said. “What we can improve on every day, just our defense, talking more on switches because sometimes we get confused and making sure our rebounding is on point.”
The Bruins are 7 to 7 1/2 point underdogs. FiveThirtyEight gives UCLA a 38% chance of winning.
This is the first time and the Trojans and Bruins have both advanced to the Elite Eight in the same season. They have both played in the NCAA Tournament 12 times. Before 1975, only one team per conference could play in the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA is seeded 44th in the 68-team field, Michigan fourth, USC 21st and Gonzaga first.
A strong start in overtime by the Bruins and the Crimson Tide’s poor free throw shooting led to the Bruins’ victory.
UCLA scored the first seven points in overtime and 23 points in the five-minute overtime, making five of eight shots, including both of its 3-point attempts, and 11 of 13 free throws. The Bruins had been held to 25 points in the 20-minute second half when they made nine of 33 shots, including one of 12 3-point shots, and six of nine free throws.
Alabama, seeded fifth in the field, forced the overtime when Alex Reese made a 3-point basket as time expired in regulation, tying the score, 65-65.
“We knew that we had nothing to worry about it,” Jaquez said. “This is March. It happens all the time. That’s something we’re used to going into these games and overtime games.”
This was UCLA’s sixth overtime game of the season. It has won four games in overtime, including an 86-80 victory over Michigan State in a First Four game March 18.
The Crimson Tide (26-7) missed their first four shots and both free throws to begin the overtime. David Singleton made a 3-point basket and jump shot sandwiched around a Tyger Campbell layup to give the Bruins a 72-65 lead with two minutes, 51 seconds left in overtime.
Alabama twice cut the deficit to four in overtime, the last time at 74-70 with 2:05 remaining, before Jaquez began an 11-2 run with a 3-point basket.
“Those are definitely shots I practiced at the park, just imagining being in March Madness,” said Jaquez, a graduate of Camarillo High School. “I saw the shot clock winding down and I knew we needed a big shot, so I just took the shot.”
Jaquez and Jules Bernard led six Bruins in double figures with 17 points each while Singleton added 15 in 20 minutes off the bench and had a game-best plus-31, meaning UCLA outscored the Crimson Tide by 31 points while he was on the court.
Guard Jahvon Quinerly led Alabama with 20 points in 35 minutes off the bench. Guards John Petty Jr. added 16 and Keon Ellis 10 at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Poor free throw shooting cost the Crimson Tide the opportunity to win the game in regulation, making 11 of 23, 47.8%, their lowest percentage this season with at least 10 attempts. Alabama made all 10 of its free throws in its previous game, a 96-77 victory over Maryland March 22 in a second-round game.
“To me, free throws are always a mental thing,” said Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats, whose team made 70.8% of its free throws for the season. “It’s the same distance. There’s zero variables in free throws other than the pressure you put on yourself mentally. I always tell our guys, turn yourself into a robot at the free-throw line. It’s the same thing. Do the same routine every time.
“It’s disappointing because, you know, if we make them, we win the game. It hurts to lose a game knowing if you make free throws, you win.”
Herbert Jones missed three of four free throws in the final 36 seconds of regulation and five of his seven for the game.
“Herb Jones is a great free-throw shooter all year,” Oats said of the senior who made 71.3% of his free throws for the season. He put a ton of time in all off-season, all year really in the gym. He’s a good free-throw shooter. Didn’t happen to make them Monday evening.”
Jones, a 6-foot-8-inch guard-forward who was the Southeastern Conference’s Player and Defensive Player of the Year, was called for two offensive fouls in the first 42 seconds and did not return to the game until 9:11 before halftime.
Jones finished with eight points in 30 minutes.
The Bruins closed the first half with an 18-4 run to take a 40-29 lead at halftime. Alabama scored the first 11 points of the second half, with Petty making a 3-point basket, dunk and two free throws during the run that tied the score 40-40 with 15:11 left in regulation.
UCLA responded with a 9-2 run with Jaquez making a 3-point basket and two free throws for a 49-42 lead with 11:10 remaining in regulation. The Crimson Tide scored the next nine points for a 51-49 lead with 7:50 to play in regulation.
Neither team would lead by more than two until Singleton’s two free throws put the Bruins ahead 65-62 with four seconds left in regulation.
The victory was UCLA’s fourth straight in the tournament. The Bruins had entered the tournament on a four-game losing streak.
“Our defense was kind of lacking in those four games that we lost, so when we got into March, we knew that was something we had to change,” Jaquez said. “That’s what we’re doing right now and that’s why we’re winning games.”
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