Each year, March Madness provides fans with thrilling drama as each match is an elimination game. This means that to win, teams must play well every night to secure victory. Although the best teams are supposed to be the highest seeds, major upheavals happen every year that no one saw coming. In 2021, 2 teams largely outdid themselves during the Grande Danse.
Oregon State Beavers
12th-seeded Oregon State defied the odds, becoming the second 12th seed to make the Elite 8.
Their defense struggled during the regular season but improved greatly in their tournament matchups while still scoring effectively.
The team was on a winning streak heading into the big dance, having won its Pac-12 conference tournament for the first time in school history. Throughout their tournament, they won tough games against UCLA, Oregon and Colorado, all top teams that competed in March Madness.
All of the Beavers players were prepared for a deep run. The team had depth; they played 8 guys over 13 minutes per game.
They possessed the threat of scoring Ethan Thompson, a senior guard capable of having a profound impact on every game. He averaged 16.7 points per game, leading the team, and threw 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Although they held offensive weapons, their defense was disappointing, not finishing in the top 50 of Division 1 teams in terms of opposing score.
Their first game as the 12-seeded was against the 5-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, where they showed off their offensive skills, shooting 48.2 percent, and had a stellar defensive performance, keeping the Vols at 33, 3% from the field and 19 points in the first half. Oregon State rebuffed Tennessee’s comeback attempts to shut it down.
Against Oklahoma State, they were the underdogs again, as the Cowboys were led by NCAA star Cade Cunningham. However, despite Cunningham’s 24 points, the Beavers took the win with another remarkable first half where they led by 14 points. Oklahoma State shot just 28 percent from the field, relying on free throws to stay in the game. Oregon State hit 41% of their shots while passing the Cowboys by 20.
Respect for the Beavers grew due to their big wins in the previous two games.
They were still not expected to beat Loyola Chicago, an 8-seeded team that had knocked out top-seeded Illinois in the previous round. However, after a stunning defensive performance in the first half, which saw Loyola score just 16 points, it was clear the Beavers were a real contender. Ethan Thompson led the team with 22 points as they held off the Ramblers in a 7-point win.
Their luck turned against the 2 seeded Houston Cougars.
The game was over after the first half when they only managed to score 17 points to the Cougar’s 34. Although they shot more effectively than Houston from the field, their inability to knock down all three points or make free throws cost them the game. Houston held off a late Beavers run in the final minutes to end the Beavers’ historic run.
The Bruins have beaten 2 seeded Alabama and 1 seeded Michigan en route to the last four this year, with just 0.88% of the brackets making that prediction.
UCLA has lost three straight games and ended up in a play-in spot for the Big Dance. They narrowly beat the Michigan State Spartans in the playoff, coming back 11 points and winning in overtime.
The Bruins’ ability to close out games was exemplified in March Madness.
Johnny Juzang led the scoring, consistently scoring 16 points per game in the regular season. Lively guard Tyger Campbell started the offense, with 5.4 assists per game. Their balance in attack allowed them to systematically put the ball in the basket.
An energetic defense made it impossible for opponents to score effectively when UCLA’s offense struggled at times. Versatile defenders Cody Riley and Jaime Jaquez Jr. could defend all positions, preventing the opposition from taking advantage of shifts.
The Bruins faced two weak teams in the first round: 6-seeded BYU and 14-seeded Abilene Christian. Although BYU was a top seed, their lack of bench production and inability to defend Juzang gave UCLA the win. They faced an even worse opponent in the round of 16, as 14-seeded Abilene Christian had knocked out 3 seeded Texas in the previous round. The Bruins eliminated the ACU by 20 points, holding them to 47 points for the game.
UCLA faced the 2nd seed Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sweet Sixteen, their first real test of madness in March. The game was tight throughout the first half, but the Bruins managed to pull away and led by 11 at halftime.
However, Alabama got back into the game quickly, starting the second half scoring 11 unanswered points to tie the score at 40. UCLA were never in danger of falling too far behind, as the Crimson Tide n couldn’t make any free throws, shooting 44 percent from the line compared to UCLA’s 80 percent. Juzang was struggling, so guards Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez stepped up, each scoring 17 points to keep the Bruins competitive. With just four seconds left, UCLA leading by 3, Alabama buzz-beater 3 to tie the game at 65 and sent it to overtime. Although Alabama sent the game to overtime, Jaquez’s reckless turnovers and consistent scoring were overwhelming. Alabama quickly fell behind in overtime and never recovered.
The next game, against the number one seeded Michigan Wolverines, was their toughest all season. The game was a defensive battle. Both teams failed to score more than 55 points and each shot below 40%. The UCLA offense failed to gain momentum; Johnny Juzang, who finished the game with 28 points, kept the Bruins competitive throughout the game. Michigan exploited the lack of size on the Bruins’ roster. They continually abused the big post men for easy field goals but still faced a lot of resistance. Kenneth Nwuba was the only reliable center in the lineup and played clutch defense in the second half.
UCLA held a narrow lead near the end, and Michigan’s inability to score from outside the post prevented them from taking the lead. With the win over Michigan, they became one of two 11 seeds to make the final four.
Their last four meetings were against undefeated Gonzaga, a team that could do it all. They were in the top ranks of offensive and defensive efficiency.
During the match, however, both teams ignored the defense. Gonzaga and UCLA burned the nets as they both shot over 55%. Juzang was reliable throughout the match, consistently landing hard shots to keep Gonzaga from gaining momentum. In the paint, Timme displayed his dominance, missing just 4 shots while scoring 25 points.
Neither team fell far behind, as each team’s biggest deficit was no more than five points. The game went to the wire and went into overtime.
In the extension, it remained tight. In the dying seconds, Juzang scored a lay-up to tie the game. Then Jalen Suggs ran down the field quickly, scoring a three from near half the field. He cashed in to give the Bulldogs the win and ended a historic UCLA tournament.
Although these two teams did not win the final, they exceeded everyone’s expectations and their success will not be forgotten.