Even without raising a banner, UCLA’s seniors reclaimed the program’s blue-blooded fabric

“Hoop Dreams” ends with heartbreak, not championships, documenting its humanity amid injuries and setbacks, making it perhaps the greatest sports movie of all time.

Some may feel the same way about UCLA’s senior class. No, they didn’t get to hoist the No. 12 banner, but every time these boys took the court they would give it all they had as they restored the fabric of a proud program.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. it was Thursday night inside T-Mobile Arena, from exhaustion that would have knocked others unconscious, to spark a late lap.

There was Tyger Campbell, fearlessly going a foot high between players to find room for his floating jumpers.

There was David Singleton, making two 3-pointers to kill this NCAA tournament Goliath.

The hardest part of the injury-depleted UCLA’s 79-76 loss to Gonzaga in another wild shot by the Zags in a West Region semifinal wasn’t the end of a season. It was the end of an era.

These seniors fought through serious injuries. They built a culture based on toughness and responsibility. They reached the Final Four and three Sweet 16s.

And now they won’t take the court together again as Bruins. They won’t hear the roars of fans who fell in love with UCLA basketball all over again because of them. They won’t feel the admiration of the old coaches who lured them to the program, Ben Howland is now a regular at Pauley Pavilion and Jim Harrick is watching from several rows behind the team bench on Thursday.

Even if Campbell decides to return for a sixth season and Jaquez stunned everyone by returning after being the Pac-12 player of the year, Singleton played his 164th and final game as a Bruin.

Sitting in front of his locker half an hour after Thursday’s game, eyes puffy, Singleton didn’t understand the end of it all.

“I still have my jersey on,” he said, “so no, it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme (2) celebrates as UCLA’s David Singleton (34) runs down the court Thursday night. Singleton played in his 164th and final game as a Bruin.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

His silence was only pierced by questions from reporters on the other side of a locker room, Campbell chanted a similar refrain when asked if it was impossible not to play another game with this team.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Campbell. “Yes. Yes sir.”

Looking stunned, Jaquez couldn’t begin to describe the pain he felt.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still processing, I guess, the game and everything right now.”

Their manager found the words his players lacked, with Mick Cronin telling his team he was proud of not flinching despite the two starters.

“I mean, you lose two of the best players in the Pac-12, the defensive player of the year, the freshman of the year,” Cronin said, referring to Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona, “we still hope to win.”

They had a chance until the last second, thanks in large part to the loyalty of the seniors and their unceasing desire to maximize their abilities.

“I have a lot of respect for those three because when you watch them play, you don’t think, ‘It should be better than that,'” Cronin said. “When you look at Dave Singleton and you see that he’s limited in the sport, and you see that he gets everything he can out of his body and his talent.

“Tyger Campbell, incredible career. You can no longer get out of his body and things that God himself cannot change. He totally gets it.

“And Jaime Jaquez, the same thing. For the first two months he was introduced to us as human billing. And I played him because he was as crazy as I was. We were losing, he was angry. I said, “I can build a program with this guy because he has heart.” Now look at him.’

Jaquez will likely go to the NBA after passing Bill Walton on his way to 8th place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,802 points. When Jaquez said he didn’t know what to say about the legendary Bruin passing last weekend, Cronin patted him on the shoulder and said with a smile, “Come back for a fifth year.”

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr.  (24) leaves the court after the Bruins' loss to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on March 23, 2023.

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) leaves the court after the Bruins’ loss to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. He will probably go to the NBA.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Nice session, coach.

Campbell is No. 2 on UCLA’s all-time assists list with 655, trailing only Pooh Richardson (833). He played with Jaquez, Singleton, Kenneth Nwuba and Russell Stong IV on senior night, but has not indicated if he will return next season. Campbell, Jaquez and Nwuba have one more season of eligibility due to the 2019-20 COVID-19 suspension.

UCLA’s roster could be nearly the same for the 2023-24 season … or it could be completely different. Clark (lower leg) and Bona (shoulder) are recovering from significant injuries to show NBA teams that could lure them back for another college season that they are ready for the next level. Freshman Amari Bailey could also return after his recent breakthrough, turning him into a supercharged version of Johnny Juzang with a steady green light to shoot.

There’s also a freshman class that includes Sebastian Mack, Devin Williams and Brandon Williams (no relation) that is perfectly suited for what his coach wants. When Cronin told Mack, a 6-foot-3 combo guard from Las Vegas, that the Bruins needed his shot, Mack replied, “I’m here to play defense and win, coach.”

A few more players could arrive from the transfer window or a deepening international prospect, bolstering the Bruins’ quest to remain a top-10 team.

They will never be this team.

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