With his team trailing UCLA by one and down to its final possession, Gonzaga coach Mark Few drew up a play for Julian Strawther to try to save the Zags’ season.
The purpose of the dribble handoff was to put Strawther in position to attack the basket, but Few made it clear that the junior had permission to improvise.
“If no one steps up on me, do you want me to shoot it?” Strawther clarified.
“Absolutely,” Few responded, though he admits he probably used “a little stronger language than that.”
Strawther validated Few’s trust, sinking the biggest shot of his life. The Las Vegas native playing in his hometown pulled up from the edge of the half-court logo and buried a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left in the game to send the Zags to a 79-76 victory in the West Regional semifinals.
Strawther’s impossibly deep 3-pointer was the highlight of the latest thrilling March showdown between the West Coast’s top two programs. UCLA and Gonzaga battled to the buzzer in another classic NCAA tournament matchup, trading double-digit leads, wild emotional swings and late dagger 3-pointers.
UCLA led by as many as 13 early in the second half and trailed by as many as 10 with just under three minutes to go. Drew Timme tallied 36 points and 13 rebounds to carry Gonzaga into the lead, yet he also seemed destined to be the goat after two damaging missed free throws in the final minute.
“I am the number one Julian Strawther fan forever now,” Timme said with a laugh.
Were it not for Strawther’s answer, the story of the game would have been a frantic 14-3 UCLA rally capped by a clutch shot from freshman Amari Bailey. Bailey’s left-wing 3-pointer with 12.4 seconds to go gave the Bruins a short-lived one-point lead and had them in position to advance to the Elite Eight.
Now it will be third-seeded Gonzaga who faces fourth-seeded UConn on Saturday with a Final Four berth at stake. The Zags have made five Elite Eight appearances since 2015 and will be looking for their third trip to the Final Four.
While UCLA and Gonzaga have only faced each other seven times before, the two West Coast powers share a storied history. They laid the foundation for a rivalry with three previous high-stakes NCAA tournament matchups, two of which were instant classics with unforgettable finishes that get replayed every March.
Exactly 17 years ago, Gonzaga endured the ultimate punch to the gut, a Sweet 16 loss so heartbreaking that it famously left Adam Morrison hiding his mustachioed face and sobbing into his jersey at mid-court. Trailing by 17 in the first half and by nine with just over three minutes to play, UCLA scored the final 11 points to escape with a 73-71 victory in a game it never led until the final 8.6 seconds.
Gonzaga has twice extracted NCAA tournament revenge, once with a comfortable victory in the 2015 Sweet 16 and the second time with an iconic buzzer beater. Jalen Suggs finished off an all-time great national semifinal two years ago by banking in a 40 footer, thwarting UCLA’s upset bid and preserving Gonzaga’s undefeated season for another two nights.
Asked Tuesday if he’s rewatched that game in its entirety, UCLA head coach Mick Cronin told reporters that he “hit pause as soon as” Johnny Juzang tied the score with a put-back with 3.3 seconds to go.
“What the hell do I need to watch that for?” Cronin said. “You think I’m a masochist?”
Suggs and Juzang have since moved on to the NBA, but other key figures from that 2021 Final Four classic were also on the floor Thursday night. And yet if Thursday’s game was personal for UCLA seniors Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and David Singleton, they did a good job hiding it beforehand.
“It’s a completely new team,” Jaquez insisted.
Campbell said that “Jaime hit it on the head,” adding that the Bruins were “going into this game not worried about the past ones.”
UCLA took advantage of Gonzaga’s loose ball handling and shoddy pick-and-roll defense on Thursday night to build a 13-point halftime lead. The Bruins scored at will at the rim in the first half, whether via Tyger Campbell and Amari Bailey drives or in transition after Jaime Jaquez steals.