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UCLA’s improbable Final Four run is new to Bruins, but they won’t turn it down

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UCLA's improbable Final Four run is new to Bruins, but they won't turn it down

There is no Walton or Jabbar or Marques Johnson this time. There is not even a Chris Smith, Jalen Hill or Daishen Nix. UCLA does not have the players it used to have, nor the players it is supposed to have, and still it has wound up in the place to which it once owned exclusive rights: the NCAA Final Four.

UCLA owns 19 Final Four appearances in its glorious basketball history, and nearly all of them were led by some extraordinary combination of elite talent. There were Hall of Famers, All-Americans, future NBA All-Stars. When UCLA gets this far into the tournament, it’s because the Bruins were better.

So what, exactly, just happened?

MORE MARCH MADNESS: Live scores | Updated bracket | TV schedule

In just his second year as coach, short three regular players he was expecting to fill essential roles, Mick Cronin put himself in the same category as Ben Howland, Jim Harrick, Larry Brown, John Wooden. And in some ways, he did something only Brown, perhaps, ever did: made an improbable Final Four run. The Bruins lost the last four games of their regular season and squeezed into the March Madness. And now they’ve become only the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, joining 2011 VCU.

Brown’s 1980 team was the closest to a UCLA surprise. Those Bruins finished 17-9 and fourth in the Pac-10. They had three freshman regulars, which affected their success, but they also featured seven future NBA players.

“When you try to preach, when you’re building a program — and you guys have heard me say this, first of all on April 9, 2019, I told you — I spell fun W-I-M,” Cronin told reporters postgame. “Our scoring has been elite, 11th or 12th on offense, but tonight it was our defense. You have to find a way to win. And these guys are having the most fun they ever had in their life back in that locker room. Because they won.”

In the space of three days, UCLA took out the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the East Region, Michigan the regular-season champion of the Big Ten Conference and Alabama the regular season and tournament champion in the SEC.

In both cases, the Bruins advanced by reaching a level of defensive commitment that had been beyond them for so much of this year. They are an elite jump-shooting team, and they do not turn over the ball, but they do not excel at generating high-percentage shots. They were unlikely to outscore either the Wolverines or Crimson Tide, so they worked to limit possessions and to make every cut — every action — Michigan attempted as uncomfortable as possible.

“We won it on the defensive end,” Cronin said. “We didn’t foul. We didn’t give up a layup. We forced shots over us down the stretch and that was the whole key. We forced shots over us.”

MORE: What is the lowest seed to make Final Four in NCAA Tournament?

Michigan had every chance to take down the Bruins, just like Alabama did before, and just like Michigan State did all the way back in the First Four. None of those three succeeded. UCLA reached the Final Four scoring, on average, 66.6 points in regulation. The deeper the Bruins advanced, the uglier they needed the game to be. This was accomplished, in part, by patience with the ball to consume as much of the shot clock as possible and still conjure a worthy shot attempt. It was, more so, the product of extraordinary defensive efforts.

Michigan, which owns the nation’s No. 9 offense, was held to a measly .83 points per possession. All-American Hunter Dickinson was the only Michigan player to reach double figures in scoring, and he had 11 points. Wings Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown, who had assumed so much of the offensive responsibility Isaiah Livers handled before getting injured, were smothered by Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard and scored a combined 12 points.

The Wolverines missed four point-blank shots and three open 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes, and every one of those shots would have put them into the lead. They did not make a basket in the final 5 minutes. They committed 14 turnovers, nearly one for every four possessions they had during the game.

“It’s very disappointing for our guys, working extremely hard this year, coming down to one possession,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters. “And that’s how it goes sometimes. In the game of basketball, there’s one or two possessions that can really either help you or hurt you, and for us, we came up short.”

MORE: 11 seeds in Final Four: How UCLA’s March Madness run compares to past teams

UCLA entered the season without Nix, the five-star recruit who committed to the Bruins last year but chose to join the NBA’s G League pathway program. Smith tore his ACL in a victory over Utah on New Year’s Eve. Hill chose to leave the program in February for personal reasons.

Cronin placed more offensive responsibility on Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, encouraging him to be more a scorer than a shooter. As a five-star prospect in high school, Juzang was expected to be elite from long distance. He is shooting 34.5 percent. But Cronin and his staff convinced Juzang he had other means of ringing up big numbers. He has averaged 21.6 points in the NCAA Tournament, including 28 of the Bruins’ 51 points against Michigan.

“I just approached it like another game. We’ve been super locked in to this tournament,” Juzang said. “You don’t want to — as a player, you don’t like to add pressure to yourself. I know the whole team was just worried about we’re going to leave it out there on the floor and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got. I mean, the shots just happened to go in and teammates are finding me. I wouldn’t say anything different.

“I love every single one of these guys. It’s incredible, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something, you know, growing up, you just dream about. And to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, makes it just so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful sharing this moment with, you know, your brothers and just great, great people.”

None of his brothers is an All-American. Few may be future pros. But they all are going to the Final Four. As so many Bruins did before them, with bigger names, more ability — but no greater desire to win.

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White Sox’s Carlos Rodon completes no-hitter after losing perfect game in 9th to HBP

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White Sox's Carlos Rodon completes no-hitter after losing perfect game in 9th to HBP

Carlos Rodon went through elbow surgery two years ago and shoulder issues last year. The White Sox non-tendered him last offseason and then re-signed him about two weeks before the start of spring training.

He was perfectly healthy for his second start of 2021, to the point he almost made history.

Rodon on Wednesday threw a no-hitter against Cleveland, beating the Tribe 8-0 on a 45-degree night in Chicago. He was two outs away from becoming the 24th MLB pitcher to throw a nine-inning perfect game.

MORE: Teams’ most recent no-hitters

Unfortunately for him, he lost the perfecto when he hit Cleveland catcher Roberto Perez on the foot with a breaking ball with one out in the ninth. Perez did not make much of an effort to avoid the pitch but there was no argument from the White Sox.

After that, the 28-year-old left-hander struck out Yu Chang and retired Jordan Luplow on a ground ball to third baseman Yoan Moncada to complete the no-hitter. Rodon threw 114 pitches (75 strikes), his highest pitch count since throwing 116 on July 29, 2018 (per Baseball-reference.com). 

Rodon almost lost his perfecto bid on the first batter of the ninth. Josh Naylor hit a slow bouncer to first baseman Jose Abreu, who slid into the bag to barely beat a diving Naylor. First base umpire Brian Knight, who was no Jim Joyce on this night, called Naylor out. A rapid replay review upheld the call.

“That was a hell of a play, man, hell of a play,” Rodon told the White Sox TV crew in an on-field interview.

Rodon rejoined the Sox on Feb. 1 — he said it was a “pretty easy” decision to come back, knowing that Chicago was set up to win now — and then pitched his way into the rotation in spring training. Wednesday’s start was just his fourth since suffering the elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in May 2019. He threw 95 pitches over five innings in his 2021 debut, April 5 vs. the Mariners.

He almost became the fourth White Sox pitcher to throw a perfect game; he would have joined Philip Humber (2012), Mark Buehrle (2009) and Charlie Robertson (1922). Instead, he completed the 20th no-hitter in franchise history (rotation mate Lucas Giolito no-hit the Pirates last Aug. 25).

And he threw the second no-no in MLB in less than a week. Joe Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in Padres history Friday night against the Rangers in Texas.

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PSG star Neymar wants to be professional poker player when he retires from football

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PSG star Neymar wants to be professional poker player when he retires from football

PSG star Neymar has expressed his desire to become a professional poker player when he retires from football.

The 29-year-old started playing poker during the 2014 World Cup and has developed a passion for the game since then. 

Neymar said he played with Gerard Pique during his time at Barcelona and now counts Keylor Navas and Leandro Paredes among his poker rivals at PSG.

What was said?

When asked by CNEWS if his goal was to be a professional poker player when he retires from football, Neymar said: “It’s true, it’s true. It’s one of the things I love to do the most. 

“I feel very comfortable and I think that after playing football I will be able to do tournaments, travel to play tournaments that I have always wanted to participate in and could not do because of my agenda and my career. 

“So when I finish my football career, that’s one of the things I’m going to do, travel to play this type of tournament.

“Among the similarities between poker and football, I think focus is one of them. The way you read your opponent and the game is also very important. 

“I think one of the most important things in football, and what I do on the pitch, is to read the game, read your opponent, and see where you can attack, where you can move to create a chance for your team. 

“And in poker it’s the same, you have to read the game, read your opponents and know the right time to attack your opponent.”

What’s next for Neymar?

The Brazilian still has plenty to accomplish on the pitch before his playing days are over, starting with his quest for a treble with PSG this season.

Neymar helped PSG past Bayern Munich in the Champions League this week, setting up a semi-final clash with Manchester City.

PSG are also three points back of first-place Lille in Ligue 1, while they have a French Cup quarter-final date with Angers later this month.

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‘Heading into one’s arm is not punishable’ – Dortmund boss Terzic slams penalty decision vs Man City

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'Heading into one's arm is not punishable' - Dortmund boss Terzic slams penalty decision vs Man City

Borussia Dortmund manager Edin Terzic hit out at a crucial penalty call that went against his side on Wednesday in their Champions League elimination against Manchester City.

With Dortmund leading 1-0 on the night and poised to advance to the semi-finals on away goals, Emre Can was whistled for a handball in the box 10 minutes into the second half. 

Can headed the ball off his outstretched arm, which Terzic insisted meant the spot kick should not have been awarded. Riyad Mahrez would convert the ensuing penalty to send City on their way to the last four.

What was said?

“To be fair, you have to congratulate Man City,” Terzic told Sky Germany. “They played brilliantly and deservedly go one round further.

“After three of four halves, however, we were through – then it’s annoying that we end up conceding two goals like this. At the referee training it is clearly stated that heading into one’s arm is not punishable.

“Let me put it this way: We weren’t very lucky with decisions in the two games. We had a big dream, it is now unfortunately over.”

What other decisions went against Dortmund?

Jude Bellingham had what appeared to be a valid goal taken away in the first leg after he stole the ball from Ederson and rolled it into an empty net.

The referee ruled the teenager had fouled Ederson and blew his whistle before Bellingham put the ball into an empty net, meaning the play could not be reviewed by VAR. 

Replays showed that Bellingham had robbed the ball in mid-air from Ederson while hardly making contact with the goalkeeper.

What happened after Mahrez’s goal?

The Algerian drew City level on the night after Bellingham’s opener for Dortmund, and his spot kick put City ahead 3-2 on aggregate. 

City would then go on to control possession as they looked to take away the Germans’ chances of equalising.

With 15 minutes to play, Phil Foden then grabbed another goal to put the tie out of reach for Dortmund as City advanced with a 4-2 aggregate win.

What’s next for both teams?

Dortmund will face Werder Bremen on Sunday as they continue their pursuit of a top-four spot in the Bundesliga, currently sitting in fifth place. 

City take on Chelsea in a FA Cup semi-final on Saturday before they face PSG in the Champions League semi-finals later in April.

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