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March Madness: UCLA seniors ready for their last chance to dance

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

Facing each other after walking onto the court for warm-ups, the UCLA seniors kick off a little dance. Feet shuffling, knees bent, they rock back and forth to the beat, each cradling a ball.

Jáquez spins toward the basket, bouncing his ball high up the court with both hands before spinning to pick it up. He ducks deep, Singleton mimicking his move, before dribbling behind his back and throwing a layup.

They’ve been doing the same routine all season. At some point, whether they are upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament or reach the Final Four, it will truly be their last dance with teammate Tyger Campbell.

If all goes well, the trio will strut their stuff from Sacramento to Las Vegas to Houston as part of the Bruins’ first national championship run since 1995, not to mention a proper sendoff to each other.

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

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

(Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

“This is one last chance to make something happen. Our backs are against the wall right now, we’re sorry, but we’re embracing it. We take everything that comes with it.”

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

This team came close, beating out Arizona for the region they had both coveted in a fascinating case study. The Wildcats’ victory over the Bruins in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament on Saturday night was the second in three head-to-head meetings. Arizona could also claim more impressive non-conference wins and a fully intact roster.

Presumably, UCLA prevailed because they 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 top players. Coach Mick Cronin confirmed every Bruins fan’s biggest fear when asked about the status of star defenseman Jaylen Clark over the next three weeks after missing the Pac-12 tournament due to a lower back injury. leg.

“He’s out,” Cronin said.

More promising was the status of rookie center Adem Bona, who missed the last 1 1/2 games with a left shoulder injury. Cronin said Bona wasn’t as sore Sunday as he was the day before, leading to a “much more optimistic” outlook on his availability against the Bulldogs, who have won 18 of their last 19 games after sweeping the Big League tournament. South Conference. .

“Just knowing him, what he’s like,” Cronin said, “it would take a lot to keep him off the court.”

What perhaps holds the most promise for these Bruins is their ability to persevere no matter who’s available. They shut down Arizona without Clark in their final game of the regular season and nearly beat the Wildcats a week later without Clark and Bona.

“We try to create a culture of no excuses,” Cronin said. “I also try to teach them that about their life. If you have the toughness and willingness to work, you can get where you want to go.”

That spirit didn’t just come from his coach. Jaquez, Singleton and Campbell have also called for accountability, Singleton clashing with Cronin over avoiding an ejection last month after committing a technical foul against Stanford. Campbell knew a softer touch was needed Saturday when he comforted freshman Dylan Andrews after an empty offensive possession against Arizona.

Cronin pointed to the seniors’ ability to make the right plays at crucial moments as one of the main reasons his team has won 12 of its last 13 games. He cited Campbell’s ability to draw a foul to ensure the Bruins had a chance to tie the score against Arizona on Saturday while trailing two points and Jaquez found Andrews for an open 3-pointer late in the game instead of trying to play. a triplet.

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

“When you play here, you wear the most important jersey in college basketball history,” 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 toughest Bruins don’t get sentimental.

“I am very aware that this is the last dance for these guys together,” Cronin said, “but we are going to petition as soon as the season is over to get Dave back.”