INDIANAPOLIS — Twitter waits for no one, and nothing, not even the five minutes of a basketball overtime. And that explains why UCLA coach Mick Cronin was as fiercely criticized for the most consequential victory of his two-decade career as any of the games he lost along the way.
There were 4.1 seconds left when Bruins junior reserve David Singleton, who had scored only 10 points combined in three NCAA Tournament games, made consecutive free throws to put his team ahead of Alabama by three points in the NCAA East Region semifinals. The only thing that could keep the Bruins from the Elite Eight would be a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and a calamitous overtime.
The obvious move, right there, is to instruct the Bruins to foul on purpose and prevent any of the Alabama players from attempting a 3-point shot.
Great play; great shot. But that one’s on Mick Cronin. Foul up 3!
— Chris Yates (@CPY87) March 29, 2021
Imagine having the chance to foul easily before the shot, and not fouling
— Springy Heaterson (@LockyLockerson) March 29, 2021
Don’t let UCLA winning this game distract from the fact that Mick Cronin didn’t foul up 3 against a team that was 11-of-25 from the free-throw line. Outrageous.
— Jake Winfrey (@winfreyjake) March 29, 2021
Here’s the really weird thing about what happened late Sunday evening at Hinkle Fieldhouse: Cronin agrees.
“I’m a foul guy,” he told reporters after the Bruins had dominated overtime to escape into the next round of March Madness — their first Elite Eight since 2008 — with an 88-78 victory over the Crimson Tide.
What he meant was he prefers to instruct his players, in that situation, to commit the purposeful foul and send the opposing team to the free throw line to avoid an opponent’s attempts at a tying 3-pointer.
In this instance, however, he knew Alabama coach Nate Oats had seen him telling his players to foul. And when Oats subsequently called timeout, he began to fear Oats would use that break to call for his players to immediately fire the ball toward the goal if a Bruin approached to foul, which could lead to three free throws for a foul in the act of shooting a 3. Alabama ran a nifty set, relatively unimpeded, that led to a top-key 3-pointer for forward Alex Reese.
“The NBA, they don’t foul for that reason,” Cronin said. “The pro guys are really crafty. So we thought with four seconds . . . if we just make one rotation and choke that side of the floor off, we steal that pass and they don’t even get that shot off.
“Obviously, the kids bailed me out. They played great in overtime.”
Cronin later said the Bruins played as well as a team could play in OT, and though it sounds hyperbolic, it’s difficult to dispute. They scored 23 points in five minutes. Taken to its absurd but mathematically correct conclusion, that’s a 184-point pace for a regulation college basketball game.
And yet it primarily was defense that won the game. This has not been a prototypical Mick Cronin D. At Cincinnati, he coached six consecutive top-20 defenses. This UCLA squad is ranked 56th. But that’s a massive improvement over the years before he arrived, when four consecutive Bruins squads ranked 85th or worse.
“I think that’s a huge part of who he is,” UCLA wing Jaime Jaquez told reporters. “He affects us all in that way. He brings the best out in all of us. So when we go out there and play, he’s yelling and screaming with us. He’s been through everything with us. I couldn’t ask for a better coach in college basketball.”
That’s the other weird thing about the Twitter reaction, though unsurprising: To have UCLA ahead of Alabama, the No. 2 seed and regular-season and tournament champion of the Southeastern Conference, required some phenomenal coaching. Toughness has become an integral part of the UCLA culture. This has been non-negotiable for Cronin since he arrived in 2019, and this game would have been unwinnable without it.
Especially without wing Chris Smith, who injured his knee in December, and forward Jalen Hill, who left for personal reasons, this is not a dynamic bunch. There still was an insistence among the Bruins that Alabama, never mind its electric quickness, could not gain comfort in its attack, especially along the 3-point line. The Tide get a greater percentage of their points on 3-pointers than all but 15 other Division I teams. On this night, they were 7 of 28.
“You can game-plan to defend the 3,” Cronin said, “but when that ball comes off the rim and it’s in the air and on the floor, you can’t let the other team want to win more than you. And our guys did it.”
Gifted Alabama point guard Jahvon Quinerly scored 20 points, but he needed 22 shots to get there. Especially late in the game, UCLA center Cody Riley excelled at handling Quinerly on switches and blocking his shot as he attempted to sweep into left-handed layups. Jacquez stood firmly against All-America forward Herbert Jones, who got off only a half-dozen shots for eight points and was just 2 of 7 on free throws.
“We weren’t good enough to beat them tonight. They were better,” Oats said. “They hit some tough shots . . . They stepped to the line and made their free throws and got stops when they needed to. They could have definitely — we had all the momentum going in overtime. They could have folded. They didn’t, kind of punched us in the mouth to start overtime.”
That was Singleton’s right hand the Tide tasted. He had tried very hard to win the game for the Bruins in regulation, but when that didn’t fly, he went ahead and got them started in OT. He nailed a 3-pointer just 18 seconds into the extra period and nearly two minutes later his baseline jumper made it a seven-point lead. Singleton is a 17-minute player but shoots 47 percent on 3-pointers. With high-scoring wing Johnny Juzang disqualified on fouls, Singleton played 20 minutes and tied his career high with 15 points.
“Dave works so hard every day in practice,” Jaquez told Sporting News. “We know what he’s capable of, and when his name was called today, he showed everybody what he’s all about, and that’s a big-time player.”
This was UCLA’s third overtime game in the past six, but this was not like the others. Cronin told SN that even after the decision not to foul the Tide had backfired, there was a difference in the huddle from what he saw after Jules Bernard missed a free throw that could have sealed the team’s Pac-12 Tournament opener against Oregon State.
“This was tough. When you’re in this situation, man, and that happens to you at the buzzer, you’ve got every reason to fold. Every reason to fold,” Cronin said. “These guys just refused to give in.
“You know me. You know how much I’ve been trying to instill that will in them, where you just refuse to give in. Somebody might beat you, but you never let up, and you never give in. So I give the kids all the credit, man.”
He should not expect March Madness Twitter to dispute this, but he’ll surely not check. He has plenty to do preparing for the Elite Eight.