Each year, March Madness provides fans with exciting drama as each game is an elimination game. This means in order to win, teams must play well each night to ensure victory. Although the best teams are supposed to be the highest seeds, major upsets occur every year that no one saw coming. In 2021, 2 teams greatly overachieved during the Big Dance.
Oregon State Beavers
12 seeded Oregon State defied the odds, becoming the second 12 seed to ever make the Elite 8.
Their defense struggled during the regular season but greatly improved in their tournament matchups while continuing to score effectively.
The team was on a winning streak coming into the big dance, having won their Pac-12 conference tournament for the first time in school history. Throughout their tournament, they won tough games over UCLA, Oregon, and Colorado, all high-ranked teams that participated in March Madness.
All the Beavers players were prepared for a deep run. The team had depth; they played 8 guys greater than 13 minutes a game.
They possessed scoring threat Ethan Thompson, a senior guard with the ability to make a profound impact on each game. He averaged 16.7 points per game, leading the team, and pitched in 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Although they held offensive weapons, their defense was underwhelming, failing to finish in the top 50 for Division 1 teams in opponent scoring.
Their first matchup as a 12 seed was against the 5-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, where they displayed their offensive skills, shooting 48.2%, and put together an exceptional defensive performance, holding the Vols to 33.3% from the field and 19 points in the first half. Oregon State fended off the comeback attempts by Tennessee to close it out.
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 cruised to victory with another remarkable first half where they led by 14 points. Oklahoma State shot just 28% from the field, relying on free throws to stay in the game. Oregon State was able to make 41% of their shots while outrebounding the Cowboys by 20.
Respect for the Beavers increased due to their big wins in the previous two games.
They were still not projected to defeat Loyola Chicago, an 8-seeded team that had knocked out top-seeded Illinois in the previous round. However, after an amazing first-half defensive performance, which saw Loyola only score 16 points, it was evident that the Beavers were a real contender. Ethan Thompson led the team with 22 points as they held off the Ramblers in a 7 point victory.
Their luck ran out 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 efficiently than Houston from the field, their inability to knock down three-pointers 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 defeated 2 seed Alabama, and 1 seed powerhouse Michigan en route to the final four this year, with just 0.88% of brackets making that prediction.
UCLA lost three consecutive games and found themselves in a play-in spot for the Big Dance. They narrowly defeated the Michigan State Spartans in the play-in game, making an 11 point comeback and winning in overtime.
The Bruins’ ability to close out games was exemplified in March Madness.
Johnny Juzang led the scoring, consistently putting up 16 points per game in the regular season. Lively guard Tyger Campbell initiated the offense, with 5.4 assists per game. Their balance on offense allowed them to consistently put the ball in the basket.
An energetic defense made it impossible for opponents to efficiently score when the UCLA offense was occasionally struggling. Versatile defenders Cody Riley and Jaime Jaquez Jr. could defend every position, making it impossible for the opponent to take advantage of mismatches.
The Bruins faced two weak teams in the first round: 6 seeded BYU and 14 seeded Abilene Christian. Although BYU was a higher seed, their lack of bench production and inability to defend Juzang allowed UCLA to cruise to victory. They faced an even worse opponent in the round of 32, as 14 seeded Abilene Christian had knocked off 3 seeded Texas in the previous round. The Bruins blew out ACU by 20, holding them to 47 points for the game.
UCLA was matched up against the 2 seeded Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sweet Sixteen, their first real March madness test. The game was close throughout the first half, but the Bruins were able to pull away and led by 11 at halftime.
However, Alabama got back into the game quickly, beginning the second half by scoring 11 unanswered points to tie the score at 40. UCLA was never in danger of falling too far behind, as the Crimson Tide were unable to make free throws, shooting 44% from the line compared to UCLA’s 80%. 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 made a buzz-beater 3 to tie the game at 65 and sent it into overtime. Although Alabama sent the game into overtime, careless turnovers and the consistent scoring of Jaquez were overwhelming. Alabama quickly fell behind in overtime and never recovered.
The next matchup, against the number one seed Michigan Wolverines, was their most difficult all season. The game was a defensive battle. Both teams failed to score greater than 55 points and each shot below 40%. The UCLA offense failed to obtain any momentum; Johnny Juzang, who ended the game with 28 points, kept the Bruins competitive all game long. Michigan exploited the lack of size on the Bruins roster. They continuously abused the big men in the post for easy baskets, but still faced lots of resistance. Kenneth Nwuba was the only reliable center on the lineup and played clutch defense in the second half.
UCLA held a narrow lead towards the end, and Michigan’s inability to score from outside the post prevented them from taking the lead. With the win against Michigan, they became one of two 11 seeds to make the final four.
Their final four matchups were against undefeated Gonzaga, a team that could do it all. They were in the top ranks of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
During the game, however, both teams disregarded defense. Gonzaga and UCLA scorched the nets, as they both shot greater than 55%. Juzang was reliable all game, consistently making tough shots to prevent Gonzaga from gaining any momentum. In the paint, Timme displayed his dominance, missing just 4 shots while scoring 25 points.
Neither team fell far behind, as the largest deficit for each team was no more than five points. The game went down to the wire and entered overtime.
In the overtime, it remained close. In the final seconds, Juzang scored a putback layup to tie the game. Then, Jalen Suggs ran quickly down the court, putting up a three from near half-court. It banked in to give the Bulldogs the win and ended a historic UCLA tournament run.
Although these two teams did not win the final, they exceeded everyone's expectations and their success will not be forgotten.