PORTLAND, Ore. — As UCLA was taking the floor for warmups on Thursday night, the crowd’s focus was toward the ceiling of the arena. All eyes were on the jumbotron broadcasting No. 2 seed Kentucky’s overtime loss to No. 15 Saint Peter’s halfway across the country.
The 15,000 people on hand at the Moda Center cheered when Saint Peter’s had officially won. The epitome of what makes March Madness so fun was unfolding in front of their eyes, but it was virtual.
Perhaps, it was an omen. The crowd nearly got to witness an in-person upset as well.
But thanks to Tyger Campbell, fourth-seeded UCLA rallied for a 57-53 victory over 13th-seeded Akron in its NCAA Tournament opener.
Campbell reeled off eight straight points, including two 3-pointers in the final three minutes, scoring half of his team-high 16 points during a 15-4 closing run that gave the Bruins the lead and advanced them to a second-round matchup with St. Mary’s on Saturday night (tipoff time TBA).
Campbell’s first 3-pointer from the corner brought UCLA to within 51-50 with 2:26 to play before a mid-range jumper and another 3-pointer gave the Bruins a 55-51 lead with 1:16 left.
Akron’s Ali Ali had a potential game-tying opportunity, but Cody Riley blocked the shot before Johnny Juzang corralled the rebound and was fouled. Juzang’s two free throws with two seconds left iced the victory.
Campbell finished 6 for 12 from the field (3 for 6 from behind the arc) with five assists. Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists and held Akron’s top scorer, Ali, to just five points on 2-for-10 shooting. Jules Bernard added 10 points for the Bruins.
UCLA trailed 26-25 at halftime after shooting just 32% from the field (8 for 25) that was dampened by a 3-for-13 start from the field, with four turnovers, and an eventual scoring drought that lasted 5 minutes and 52 seconds.
During that stretch, the Zips had an 18-10 lead. But it was Campbell’s 3-point play that broke the drought, but it was only the Bruins’ fourth basket of the first 12 minutes. Eventually, a 3-pointer from Jaquez tied the score at 22-22 while Akron was going through a had offensive stretch of its own, having not converted on any field goals for almost five minutes.
Peyton Watson provided a spark for the Bruins in the heart of the second half with a 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave UCLA a 37-36 lead that lasted mere seconds due to a quick basket from Akron to retake the lead. But Watson’s efforts didn’t stop there. He was attacking the basket and diving for loose balls.
For a moment, it was inspiring, but didn’t seem like it was going to be enough. Xavier Castaneda hit back-to-back 3-pointers to extend Akron’s lead to 44-39 with 8:19 to play. Then Gregg Tribble’s 3-point play made it 47-39 the next play.
Things looked bleak, but the Bruins went on a 13-2 run highlighted by Campbell’s self 8-0 run.
The Bruins move to 50-2 when holding opponents under 60 points.
More to come on this story.