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UCLA plots a comeback to oust Michigan State in overtime to cap NCAA tournament’s opening night

UCLA is headed to the NCAA tournament's round of 64 after Thursday's comeback victory over Michigan State. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A highfalutin kind of men’s basketball matchup, Michigan State vs. UCLA, played the off-Broadway theater known as the First Four on Thursday night at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, but it didn’t turn out clunky at all. The Bruins’ 86-80 win in overtime, which advanced them to the round of 64 opposite No. 6 seed BYU on Saturday, featured thoughtful plays, pretty shots and veering plot twists.

It had Michigan State as a sudden marksman surging ahead 40-26 not long before halftime, UCLA nudging ahead 67-66 with 5:46 left in an impressive recovery from recent woes, Michigan State pulling back ahead 73-67 two minutes thereafter, and UCLA tying the game at 77 with 29 seconds left when it rebounded its own missed free throw, passed the ball around beautifully and found Jaime Jaquez Jr. on the low right post for a layup and an and-one.

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Then it had an overtime, when UCLA quickly built an 81-77 cushion when Johnny Juzang worked his way beautifully to an eight-foot swish and then wreaked more beauty with a drive through the left to score again. The Bruins (18-9) led from there. After struggling to score lately and in the first half, they had gotten fine playmaking again and again, especially from Jaime Jaquez Jr. with his 27 points and Juzang with his 23.

All of it ended the four-game losing streak with which the Bruins had sputtered into the tournament.

“We’ve been through a tough year,” UCLA Coach Mick Cronin said, “with injuries and losing guys and then recently struggled to close some games out, despite playing well at times. So the players really needed this.” He soon added, “Our confidence was definitely shaken.”

“I mean, we had the game won,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “And we made some of the same mistakes we’ve made two or three times this year in critical situations. And I thought we played incredibly well offensively and incredibly poor defensively. And give them a lot of credit.”

Of course, there was that matter of the game ending at 12:46 a.m.

Oh, how the mighty have . . . had to do things they don’t normally do.

The NCAA tournament selection committee had seen their dour midwinter and UCLA’s sour late winter and had slid the two of them into a “play-in” collision with a Michigan State program boating 10 Final Fours (seven this century) on its résumé and a UCLA program with 18 (three this century). Yet right off the bat, the Spartans’ field goal percentage, at which the NCAA stats sneered with a national ranking of No. 251, and their dreadful midwinter showings against Minnesota (25.7 percent), Rutgers (28.6) and Ohio State (32.1), seemed bygones.

To say hello to Izzo’s 23rd NCAA tournament — one title, one runner-up finish, eight Final Fours — the Spartans made their first four shots. They made 10 of their first 17, 14 of their first 23 and 16 of their first 26. They spread the scoring around between their lone double-digit scorer this season, Aaron Henry, and a cast of others. They looked like they’d go to 16-12 rather than their ultimate 15-13. Nobody had more than eight points as they built that 40-26 lead, and only a closing three-point shot before halftime by They built a 40-26 lead, and things got to 44-33 at halftime only through a closing three-point shot by UCLA’s Jaquez.

Of course, the night differed drastically from Marches past.

A nine-percent capacity of fans, about 1,350, dotted Purdue’s storied arena on John R. Wooden Drive, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis.

In the run-up to both games, a scoreboard video showed clips of the barrenness of March 2020, when everything got canceled, then continued with the rebirth, including the passage, “In forty-nine states, it’s just basketball, but this is Indiana!” The time gaps between games have widened considerably, and between Drake’s gnarly 53-52 win over Wichita State in the opener and the Michigan State-UCLA game, small armies of cleanup crews readied outside on the concourse, waiting to enter to give Mackey Arena a scrubbing.

About 90 minutes after the cleaning began, after 10 p.m., two programs so familiar to college basketball wackos got going together.

“I know it might be corny, but you can feel the madness when you’re in the gym even when we had as many fans (a small number) as we did,” Jaquez said. “You felt the energy. The energy was there. It was live. We’re playing on John Wooden’s home court (where the late UCLA coach played college basketball). That definitely meant something for us, to come in here and get the win for him.”

Their meeting came 10 years and one day after they met in a round of 64, in 2011 in Tampa. Then, No. 7 seed UCLA won 78-76 after almost fumbling a 23-point lead, and it barely overcame a sparkling set of numbers — 23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — from one Draymond Green.

This time, observers might have expected even less. Cronin’s second UCLA team started the Pac-12 season 8-0 before ending it 13-6, and had wrapped it up before this with a loss at Colorado, a loss at Oregon, a loss at home against Southern California on a wacky game-winning shot, and a loss against Oregon State in overtime in the Pac-12 tournament. Meanwhile, Izzo had told reporters, “You know and I know that three weeks ago nobody gave us a chance, including probably most of you and probably even me.”

Yet his latest grit-rich team wriggled to 15-12 and a tournament berth by becoming the only team since Jan. 16 to defeat Illinois (by 81-72 on Feb. 23 at Michigan State), then adding home wins over Ohio State and Michigan. In a Big Ten regarded as the country’s best conference, they still landed at 13th of 14 teams in scoring at 69 points per game, and an uncharacteristic ninth in scoring defense, allowing 70.6 per game.

From the get-go Thursday night, though, things looked different. Henry launched a lid-lifting three-point shot from out front on the first possession, and it swished. Joshua Langford, Joey Hauser and then Henry made difficult shots. The ball often skipped rapidly from teammate to teammate, just as coaches always hope it will. As the basket’s kindness mounted, Rocket Watts shot from outside the arc to the right of the top, and it caromed around the rim and backboard some until it, too, dropped.

Soon, Henry splashed a three from the corner and Gabe Brown followed with another, causing Cronin to call timeout at 4:23 with the score 35-23. It didn’t help much. By the 2:36 mark, Hauser had hit another from the corner, and by the half, the Spartans would sit on 56.7 percent shooting (17-for-30), and 55.6 percent from distance (5-for-9).

Then they hit some ruts early in the second half and in late-game possessions, such as the closing one in regulation, when Henry shot an air ball from the left with Jules Bernard defending well, and Izzo would say of Henry, who played 41 minutes, “I think we played Aaron so much that he was just run down.”

Well before that, though, the Bruins had stopped looking lost and started riding Jaquez and Juzang’s drives to the basket and three-point shots (three each, all told), until they found themselves, impressively, around midnight.

Chuck Culpepper

Review the rest of Thursday’s action below.