March Madness: UCLA seniors ready for last chance to dance

Before each game, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton make their moves.

Facing each other after taking the court for warmups, the UCLA seniors begin with a little jig. Shuffling their feet, knees bent, they go back and forth in rhythm, each cradling a ball.

Jaquez spins toward the basket, throwing his ball up court with both hands for a spin pick-up. He drops into a deep crouch, Singleton mimicking his move, before dribbling behind his back and going in for a layup.

They have done the same routine all season. At some point, whether they go through an NCAA first-round tournament upset or reach the Final Four, it will truly be their last dance with fellow senior Tyger Campbell.

Pre-game dance with UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. and for David Singleton before Friday’s Pac-12 tournament semifinal win at Oregon.

If all goes well, the trio will make their way from Sacramento to Las Vegas to Houston for the Bruins’ first national championship since 1995, not to mention a fitting farewell.

“We talked about it. I think we recognized it,” Jaquez said Sunday after learning UCLA (29-5) clinched a No. 2 seed in the West Region and would open the NCAA tournament against No. 15 North Carolina Asheville (27-7). on Thursday night at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. “I know the three of us have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and embracing it.

“This is a last chance for something to happen. Right now our backs are against the wall, we’re sorry, but we’re embracing it. We take everything that comes.”

The Bruins’ seed is their best since they were the No. 1 seed in the West in 2008, en route to their third consecutive Final Four under another famous defense-obsessed coach. That coach reconnected with the program this season, with Ben Howland attending games and practices stressing the importance of securing the top seed in the West.

This group came close, in a fascinating case study on the edge of Arizona for the region they both coveted. The Wildcats won against the Bruins in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament on Saturday night, their second in three head-to-head meetings. Arizona can also get more impressive non-conference wins and a completely intact roster.

UCLA guard David Singleton (34) celebrates as teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. gives him a hug during a game this season.

UCLA guard David Singleton (34) celebrates as teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. gives him a hug during a game this season.

(Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

UCLA arguably dominated because it won the conference regular-season title in a four-game run, had more wins than any other Power Five conference team and played a compelling brand of basketball without its top players. Coach Mick Cronin confirmed every Bruins fan’s worst fear when asked about the status of star running back Jaylen Clark, who missed the next three weeks of the Pac-12 tournament with a leg injury.

“It’s out there,” Cronin said.

More hopeful was the situation for freshman center Adem Bona, who missed the last 1½ games with a left shoulder injury. Cronin said Bona wasn’t as sore Sunday as he was the day before, which led to a “much more optimistic” view of his availability against the Bulldogs, who have won 18 of their last 19 games and clinched the Big South Conference championship. .

“Knowing him, the way he is,” Cronin said, “it would take a lot to keep him off the floor.”

The most promising thing for these Bruins is their ability to hang on regardless. They shut out Arizona without Clark in the final game of the regular season and nearly blew the Wildcats a week later without Clark and Bona.

“We try to create a culture of no excuses,” Cronin said. “I try to teach them about their lives as well. If you have tenacity and the desire to put in the work, you can get where you want to be.’

That ethos didn’t just come from the coach. Jaquez, Singleton and Campbell have also claimed responsibility, with Singleton asking Cronin to avoid a shutout last month after picking up a technical foul against Stanford. Campbell knew a softer touch was needed Saturday when he consoled freshman Dylan Andrews after a fumbled possession against Arizona.

Cronin pointed to the seniors’ ability to make the right plays at the right time as a big reason his team has won 12 of its last 13 games. Campbell cited his ability to draw a foul to ensure they had a chance to tie the score against Arizona on Saturday, and Jaquez found Andrews open for a three instead of trying to play late in the game. triple team

They’re all pulling in the same direction, thanks in part to those four letters on the front of the chest.

“When you play here, you wear the most important jersey in the history of college basketball,” Cronin said. “You’re not going to wear a jersey that means more in college basketball than it does here.”

That’s not to say that even the most die-hard Bruins aren’t sentimental.

“I’m well aware this is the last dance for these guys,” Cronin said, “but as soon as the season is over we’re going to put in a petition to get Dave back.”

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