BYU didn’t learn the identity of its first-round NCAA Tournament opponent until early Friday morning, when UCLA topped Michigan State in overtime of their First Four matchup.
But it didn’t matter to at least one Cougars player, who invoked memories of the movie “Hoosiers” while awaiting the game in the Hoosier State.
No. 6 seed BYU is just happy to be making its first tournament appearance since 2015 and will meet No. 11 seed UCLA on Saturday night in an East Region game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
“The game of basketball is the game of basketball,” said BYU center Matt Haarms, who played at Purdue for three seasons before transferring. “The hoops are all the same height.”
Haarms didn’t have to measure the height of the hoop, as it happened in the epic basketball movie, to accentuate his point that what matters most for BYU is how the team plays. BYU (20-6) showed in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game — in which the Cougars led No. 1 Gonzaga much of the way before falling 88-78 — that it doesn’t get intimidated.
Neither does UCLA. The Bruins (18-9) rallied from a 14-point deficit to eke past Michigan State 86-80 to advance to the first round. They were led by Jaime Jaquez Jr., who scored 27 points, while Johnny Juzang added 23.
It was the first NCAA Tournament win since 2017 for UCLA.
“Maybe Coach’s luck was with us,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said in reference to the legendary John Wooden. “The players really needed this. I’m really, really happy for the guys.”
Juzang, UCLA’s leading scorer, missed the final 45 seconds of overtime, though, after landing awkwardly on his right ankle. He was helped off the court and didn’t put pressure on his leg. Cronin said Friday afternoon that he was hopeful Juzang will be able to play.
Juzang leads six players in double figures with an average of 14.5 points per game.
The Bruins, who’d lost four straight, finished fourth in the Pac-12 regular season before being upset by eventual champion Oregon State in the first round of the conference tournament.
This BYU squad has a wealth of offensive weapons, shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from 3-point territory while averaging 78.7 points. Alex Barcello leads the Cougars with 15.9 points per game, while Caleb Lohner tops the team with 7.0 rebounds per game.
Coincidentally, the last time BYU was a sixth seed happened in 1981. The Cougars ended up in the Elite Eight thanks to Danny Ainge’s tremendous tournament, which included a 37-point performance in a 78-55 drubbing of No. 3 seed UCLA.
BYU beat the Bruins 78-63 in their most recent meeting, in the 2019 Maui Invitational. The schools are 11-11 all-time against each other.
–Field Level Media