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COVID-19 cases climbing, wiping out months of progress

COVID-19 deaths and cases in the U.S. have climbed back to levels not seen since last winter, erasing months of progress and potentially bolstering President Joe Biden’s argument for his sweeping new vaccination requirements.
The cases — driven by the delta variant combined with resistance among some Americans to getting the vaccine — are concentrated mostly in the South.
While one-time hot spots like Florida and Louisiana are improving, infection rates are soaring in Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, fueled by children now back in school, loose mask restrictions and low vaccination levels.
The dire situation in some hospitals is starting to sound like January’s infection peak: Surgeries canceled in hospitals in Washington state and Utah. Severe staff shortages in Kentucky and Alabama. A lack of beds in Tennessee. Intensive care units at or over capacity in Texas.
The deteriorating picture nine months into the nation’s vaccination drive has angered and frustrated medical professionals who see the heartbreak as preventable. The vast majority of the dead and the hospitalized have been unvaccinated, in what has proved to be a hard lesson for some families.
“The problem now is we have been trying to educate based on science, but I think most of the education that is happening now is based on tragedy, personal tragedy,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky.
In Kentucky, 70% of the state’s hospitals — 66 of 96 — are reporting critical staff shortages, the highest level yet during the pandemic, the governor said.
“Our hospitals are at the brink of collapse in many communities,” said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner.
The U.S. is averaging over 1,800 COVID-19 deaths and 170,000 new cases per day, the highest levels respectively since early March and late January. And both figures have been on the rise over the past two weeks.
The country is still well below the terrifying peaks reached in January, when it was averaging about 3,400 deaths and a quarter-million cases per day.
The U.S. is dispensing about 900,000 vaccinations per day, down from a high of 3.4 million a day in mid-April. On Friday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel will meet to discuss whether the U.S. should begin giving booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
On a positive note, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 appears to be leveling off or even declining at around 90,000, or about where things stood in February.
Last week, the president ordered all employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations or weekly tests, a measure affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
“We read about and hear about and we see the stories of hospitalized people, people on their deathbeds among the unvaccinated over the past few weeks,” Biden said in announcing the rules. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
The requirements have met with resistance and threats of lawsuits from Republicans.
Arizona on Tuesday reported 117 deaths, the most in a single day since last February. Tennessee now ranks first in the U.S. in new cases per capita. Hundreds of students there have been forced to quarantine. Some schools have closed because of staffing shortages. Others have asked to switch to remote learning.
But measures aimed at containing the virus have run into opposition. Last week, a Tennessee high school student who spoke at a school board meeting in favor of a mask mandate was heckled by adults while he talked about his grandmother dying from the virus.
Stanton, the ER doctor in Kentucky, said he has admitted families where the delta variant has swept through generations, especially if the older members are unvaccinated.
“Now in Kentucky, one-third of new cases are under age 18,” he said. Some children brought it home from summer camp and spread it to the rest of the family, and now, “between day care and schools and school activities, and friends getting together, there are just so many exposures.”
In Alabama, hundreds of COVID-19 patients fill intensive care units, and one hospital contacted 43 others in three states to find a specialty cardiac ICU bed for Ray Martin DeMonia. It wasn’t soon enough. The 73-year-old died Sept. 1.
“In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non-COVID related emergencies,” his family pleaded in his obituary.
In Hidalgo County, Texas, along the Mexican border, about 50 patients were in the hospital with COVID-19 on a given day in July. By early August, the number had soared to over 600.
“Back in July we were almost celebrating. Little did we know,” said Ivan Melendez, public health authority for Hidalgo County. The situation has improved, with just under 300 people in the hospital as of Monday, but ICUs are still above 90% capacity, Melendez said.
The biggest surge over the summer occurred in states that had low vaccination rates, particularly in the South, where many people rely on air conditioning and breathe recirculated air, said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. She said states farther north could see upticks as the onset of cold weather sends people indoors.
Vaccination rates are not as low in some Northern states, but “there’s still a lot of unvaccinated people out there. Delta is going to find them,” Marr said.


Penguins’ Crosby out at least 6 weeks after wrist surgery

By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins will have to start the season without captain Sidney Crosby.
The team announced Wednesday that the two-time Hart Trophy winner will be out at least six weeks after undergoing wrist surgery.
General manager Ron Hextall said Crosby had been dealing with the injury for years and that the team exhausted all minimally invasive options before deciding surgery was the best course of action.
“We all, including Sid, wish we had known this a month or two months ago,” Hextall said. “That would be great, but we are where we are.”
The Penguins begin training camp later this month and open the season on the road against two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay on Oct. 12. The door for Crosby’s possible routine would likely open around Oct. 20 at the earliest.
The 34-year-old Crosby missed just one game during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season, finishing with 24 goals and 38 assists to help lead the Penguins to the East Division title. He had a goal and an assist in six games during Pittsburgh’s opening-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders.
Hextall said Crosby rested the injury after the season while weighing to see if he could withstand playing with it for another year.
“At some point, you ramp things up along the way,” Hextall said. “The conclusion we came to was this procedure was the best way to proceed.”
Crosby and longtime teammate Evgeni Malkin will both miss the start of the season. Malkin is recovering from right knee surgery in June. The team has declined to get specific on how long Malkin will be out other than to rule him out for training camp.
Hextall declined to give an update on Malkin’s status, saying the team will have a better idea once training camp starts. Hextall said beginning the year without the two franchise cornerstones is “not ideal” but added the team would not feel sorry for itself.
“We still have to find ways to win games,” Hextall said.
The Penguins were relatively quiet in free agency over the summer. Hextall said looking for help on the open market at this point is not an option because he does not anticipate Malkin or Crosby to be out for an extended period.
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Diggs finds validation in being selected a Bills captain

By JOHN WAWROW AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Stefon Diggs no longer needs to worry about whether he’ll be accepted in Buffalo.
If the record-setting production the receiver put up last year in his first season with the Bills wasn’t enough, whatever lingering apprehensions Diggs might have had were put to rest Tuesday, when he arrived for practice and learned he had been voted one of team’s eight captains.
“I was kind of taken back a little bit because I’ve never been in that role,” Diggs said, noting he doesn’t recall ever earning that distinction even in high school, where the best player is named captain usually by default.
“It means even more now just as far as being acknowledged by your peers,” he added, with Buffalo preparing to open its season hosting Pittsburgh on Sunday. “The fact that they trust you in the biggest moments and they trust you on a daily basis that you’re going to do the right thing on and off the field, yeah, I was happy.”
Numbers, apparently, don’t mean everything for a player coming off a season in which he became Buffalo’s first to lead the NFL in yards receiving (1,535) and catches (127).
What mattered just as much to Diggs was validation in pursuing his fresh start upon being acquired by Buffalo in a trade with Minnesota. Even before learning of the trade, Diggs had begun a concerted effort to break from his past — he referenced reading “Leadership For Dummies” — to evolve from the mercurial player he was during his first five seasons with the Vikings.
There were times he’d sulk because of a lack of targets, leading to talk a rift between Diggs and quarterback Kirk Cousins. He was disciplined by Minnesota for skipping practice following a loss and amidst speculation he wanted out a month into the 2019 season.
Diggs worried his reputation for being a diva would follow him to Buffalo by saying, “I was scared to be the red-headed stepchild.”
His concerns couldn’t have been further from the truth in how his new teammates, starting with quarterback Josh Allen, immediately embraced him.
“I tell him all the time, he’s my favorite No. 1 receiver I’ve played with,” said fellow receiver Cole Beasley, who played alongside Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper during his first seven seasons in Dallas.
“I love everything about the guy. He’s been nothing but spectacular since he’s been here on and off the field,” Beasley added. “I don’t know why he would think he would be a stepchild here. He came right in and fit right in.”
Coordinator Brian Daboll put aside any preconceived notions about Diggs upon his arrival in an effort to get to know him personally.
“I love the guy, I love the player, but really it was more about relationship and getting to know one another, building a level of trust,” Daboll said.
“He’s a man of integrity and loyalty,” he added. “He bonded well with the coaching staff and the players, and we let him be him. Then his talent took over and he’s got some high energy out there that a lot of the guys feed off of, so I can see why he was voted captain.”
Diggs was never going to be the featured player on a Vikings offense in which the offense revolved around running back Dalvin Cook, with receiver Adam Thielen the established target.
Not so in Buffalo, where the Bills gave up a first-round draft pick in believing Diggs was the missing piece in Daboll’s up-tempo, pass-heavy offense being built around a strong-armed, developing quarterback.
Despite the lack of a preseason because of the coronavirus pandemic, Allen and Diggs developed instant chemistry in setting numerous single-season records. The Bills in turn won their first AFC East title since 1995 and made their deepest playoff run in 27 years, ending with a loss to Kansas City in the conference championship game.
Diggs deflects credit by saying everyone on offense — from Daboll to Allen to the line — played key roles.
“It’s a tribute to everybody,” Diggs said. “For me, I was just doing my job.”
NOTES: Diggs laughed when asked about a knee injury which forced him to miss a portion of the preseason. “A little worried, huh?” he said with a wink, before referring to the Steelers. “Tell them I’m hurting and I can’t go.” … Starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei missed his second straight practice with what the Bills revealed to be a calf injury. … CB Taron Johnson, who has his hand wrapped in protective tape, and WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) were listed as limited in practice.
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Cleared to earn money, college athletes tap creative sides

By JOHN RABY AP Sports Writer
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Will Ulmer doesn’t have to hide anymore.
The Marshall offensive lineman, all 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds of him, unleashed a year’s worth of energy in his first on-stage performance since the start of the pandemic, playing guitar and belting out songs in his Kentucky baritone for a modest crowd outside a Huntington ice cream store.
His keychain fastened to a belt loop and a can of smokeless tobacco bulging from a back pocket, Ulmer spent an hour singing country favorites along with one he wrote before finishing up with his spin on a West Virginia favorite, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
This time, he used his real name, too.
The NCAA’s decision to allow athletes to be paid for their fame and celebrity has led to scores of deals big and small from coast to coast since July 1. Sponsorships and endorsements are the most common, but there has been another welcome wrinkle: Ulmer and other athletes are now able to show off their creative, artistic sides and earn some money while they’re at it.
For Ulmer, it means being able to play his music at gigs without masking his identity under the pseudonym “Lucky Bill.” For Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun, it has meant helping design sports apparel. For SMU defensive back Ra-Sun Kazadi, it means he can sell his art.
“College athletes for the longest time haven’t really had a lot of opportunities to make money,” Ulmer said. “I think this is a great one for me. But it’s not really about the money.”
Like Ulmer, Kazadi sees his craft as an extension of himself. His works are a wide-ranging assortment that includes paintings of athletes, civil rights leaders, Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the late rapper Tupac Shakur. Among his digital works is Emmy-winning actress and singer Zendaya.
A junior, Kazadi, who goes by Ra, has been painting only since high school. Some works are lighthearted and fun. Some were done as stress relief. Others reflect a certain point in his life. He also runs a separate non-profit group to promote social justice and community conflict resolution.
“My art, it is me,” Kazadi said. “Hopefully when people see it, they kind of see me. They kind of see what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling. So I feel like a lot of what I don’t say is communicated through my art.”
Before the NCAA change earlier this summer, Kazadi wasn’t allow to connect his face to his work. A Texas law that debuted last month letting students to profit off their name, image or likeness “has made a huge change in my life,” in part through art sales off his website.
He’s also showcasing his work at art shows, landed a sponsorship-mentorship deal with a custom art company, is working with real estate companies and interior designers, and there’s been greater curiosity from high schools seeking to have him paint murals on their campuses.
The post-NIL interest has been so profound that Kazadi is mulling the possibility of hiring someone to help him out.
“It’s definitely helped me navigate the art world and helped me know that it’s actually a possibility,” he said.
Sun wanted her deal with volleyball apparel company Ren Athletics to allow her personality and style to shine through in the launch of her clothing line — a black sweatshirt with her name and a golden outline of the sun’s rays.
“They gave me like an open slate to create whatever I wanted and I was just super excited about that freedom and being able to take advantage of that,” Sun said.
It quickly sold out. Company spokeswoman Natalie Hagglund said the Sunny Crew shirt was the biggest promotion in the company’s nearly 10 years in business and that additional products with Sun’s name are under consideration.
Sun also struck an endorsement deal with Nebraska-based jeweler Borsheims. Sun, who is pursuing a master’s degree in advertising and public relations, said she has picked up some business skills.
“I would say that’s the biggest thing: Just with NIL in general, I think the experience of being able to have these interactions and business conversations of making a deal and what these meetings look like and all of those things,” she said.
Nebraska is among dozens of schools with formal NIL programs and many have arrangments with companies eager to hook up athletes with various brands. Some have put their business schools to work helping athletes take advantage of the new market. Indiana recently posted a NIL directory of all Hoosier athletes. At Duquesne, Jordon Rooney was hired as the first Division I personal brand coach.
Back at Marshall, Ulmer’s teammate, defensive lineman Kyron Taylor, started Foreigner Clothing LLC last year. The line that includes T-shirts and sweatshirts features a scorpion, which both is Taylor’s astrological sign and represents the “new life” his father was given when he moved to the United States from the Caribbean, he said.
Taylor’s promotional work includes using other athletes on social media as brand ambassadors. Everything remains on a small scale, but Taylor is constantly jotting down new ideas. He estimates sales are about a dozen per week. Orders are shipped from his home, which is one positive aspect from living alone — no complaints from roommates about tripping over inventory.
“I live by myself so I can have storage for my brand,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.


Des Moines man accused of setting father’s house on fire
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A Des Moines man accused of setting his father’s house on fire while the elderly man was still inside it was arrested Wednesday, police said.
Shane Lorenz, 48, is now charged with attempted murder and first-degree arson in the case, police said.
Investigators believe Lorenz started the fire Saturday morning at his father’s home. The older man survived by climbing out his bedroom window, suffering minor injuries in the process, police said.
Lorenz is being held in the Polk County Jail and is expected to make his initial court appearance Thursday morning.


Chasing Buckeyes: Who can dethrone Ohio State in Big Ten?

By PHILLIP B. WILSON Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — There aren’t many revelations to be learned about Ohio State’s recent dominance in the Big Ten.
But say the school’s name to Indiana senior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle and he smiles with anticipation.
“I’m ready to beat ’em,” Fryfogle said during Friday’s media days session at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Compiling a short list of schools capable of ending the Buckeyes’ reign as four-time champions starts with the Hoosiers. Thanks in part to Fryfogle’s seven catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns, Indiana rallied from a 28-point deficit to push the Buckeyes in a 42-35 loss at Ohio State last season.
That was the only loss last season for Hoosiers junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who completed 27 of 51 passes for a career-high 491 yards and five TDs.
“It showed a lot of people that you can’t count us out,” Penix said.
The 2021 Buckeyes are different and, at least on paper, could be vulnerable. Quarterback Justin Fields is gone, drafted 11th overall by the Chicago Bears. Three young passers are in the mix to lead an offense that has weapons but some questions on the offensive line. The defense needs new linebackers and must bolster a shaky secondary.
“There’s inexperience in some areas,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, referring to a roster with 45 players in their first or second years.
That said, Day is 23-2 including 15-0 in the Big Ten since taking over for Urban Meyer. The losses were to Clemson and Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
“They are the gold standard and that is who we are chasing,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “We’re trying to chase that greatness every single day.”
Allen, the 2020 Big Ten coach of the year, referred to his inspiring message to the Hoosiers after that loss at Ohio State as one of the season’s best moments. He hopes that becomes a springboard to more memorable accomplishments.
Indiana’s defense is led by senior linebacker Micah McFadden, one of the conference’s best tacklers, and like Fryfogle is a third-team All-American.
“This is the most depth we’ve had on our team since I’ve been at Indiana,” Allen said.
Who else is on that short list? Minnesota hosts the Buckeyes on Sept. 2 in a Thursday night season opener. The Gophers have an experienced offensive line and run game as well as quarterback Tanner Morgan, who led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2019 but faltered in 2020.
Penn State’s Sean Clifford finished last season with seven TD passes in four wins and has 41 in his career. Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz threw seven TD passes in his first two games and the Badgers are a trendy pick ahead of Iowa to win the Big Ten West.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, at 65, is the dean of Big Ten coaches and entering his 23rd season. He is 2-8 against the Buckeyes.
“I’ve got a lot of stories about Ohio State,” Ferentz said. “None of them are very good.”
He recalled being a spectator for one of Ohio State’s victories at Lucas Oil Stadium, annual site of December’s Big Ten championship game.
“They were beating somebody on this field pretty convincingly, whatever year it might have been. It was lopsided at halftime. I got bored,” Ferentz said. “I went on my iPad, looked it up, and what I learned was if you had scheduled Ohio State up until 1900, no problem. Since 1900, they’ve been pretty good.
“It’s hardly a new story. It’s generational. I’ve been in this league quite a while. Year in and year out, including my six years in the NFL looking at draft boards, nobody has had more higher draft picks than Ohio State.”
Players change in the Big Ten, but one constant remains: Ohio State is the program by which all others are measured.
“Them, Clemson and Alabama, there’s a reason why they’re the first three that everybody thinks of,” Ferentz said.
The Buckeyes are aware from day one that teams like the Hoosiers can’t wait for that next chance.
“It’s something that we embrace,” Ohio State junior defensive end Zach Harrison said. “We know that every time we step on the field, we’re going to get every team’s best. They’re going to go 100% that week. They’ve circled us on their calendar the whole year.”
Fryfogle conceded he didn’t need to be reminded of the date of this year’s game against Ohio State — the Buckeyes visit Bloomington on Oct. 23.
“Yes, sir, I’m excited,” Fryfogle said. “That’s the team everybody wants to knock off.”


Massachusetts woman dies while snorkeling in Florida Keys

MARATHON (AP) — A 25-year-old woman has died while snorkeling in the Florida Keys, authorities said Monday.
Katherine Boukharov was pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital in Marathon, Florida, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
Witnesses reported seeing Boukharov face down and motionless in the water at Bahia Honda State Park Sunday evening. They brought her to shore, began CPR and called 911.
Foul play was not believed to be a factor in her death, the sheriff’s office said.
Autopsy results were pending for the woman who was visiting from Melrose, Massachusetts.

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Luka Doncic puts in 30 points, 10 rebounds to lead Dallas Mavericks past Pistons, 127-117

DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic had 30 points and 10 rebounds, Kristaps Porzingis added 19 points and seven boards and the Dallas Mavericks beat the Detroit Pistons 127-117 on Wednesday night to stop a four-game home losing streak.
Jalen Brunson scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half of a game that was supposed to be played Feb. 17 but was postponed because of severe winter weather in Texas.
“We’ve got to continue to stay positive,” said Brunson, who was 8 of 9 from the floor before halftime. “We have a strong finish to uphold. There’s going to be a lot of trying times. We’ve got to keep it together.”
Jerami Grant scored 26 points and Cory Joseph added 24 for the Pistons, who haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since a 108-102 win at Boston on Feb. 12. Mason Plumlee had 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Grant had 15 points in the first quarter, but foul trouble limited Detroit’s leading scorer to less than three minutes in the second and third quarters combined. The Pistons’ deficit was 16 points by the time Grant finally got back in the flow of the game early in the fourth quarter.

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Final Four set, a question left: Can anybody beat Gonzaga?

By JIM LITKE AP Sports Writer
It’s not easy to bury a team as good as USC, let alone in a half, no matter how easy Gonzaga made it look. Somehow, coach Mark Few called it in advance.
While everyone was fixating on the top-seeded Bulldogs’ make-it-rain offense, one reporter took the opposite tack. He asked Few the day before their game against the high-flying Trojans whether his defense was getting lost in the shuffle. He replied like he’d been waiting days for that question.
“I think,” Few said, “we’ve had some excellent, I mean, off-the-chart performances, and some terrific halves.”
Gonzaga’s defense dropped one of those like an anvil on No. 6 USC in Tuesday night’s Elite Eight contest. Michigan, the bracket’s other No. 1 seed in action, played decent defense against everyone in a UCLA jersey except No. 3, Johnny Juzang, and man, did he make them pay.
The Zags won’t make that mistake when they face the Bruins in one Final Four matchup come Saturday with the chance to extend their perfect (30-0) season. Baylor, the other top seed still standing and the likeliest giant-killer left, plays No. 2 Houston in the other.
Juzang scored 14 of UCLA’s first 16 points and finished with 28, more than half the total in a 51-49 win, He had five more than the Bruins’ four other starters combined and the bench wasn’t much help either. Five teammates took just three shots in 34 minutes and contributed zero points to the effort. Yet that proved enough after Michigan missed its last eight tries, including four in the final 11 seconds that would have put them ahead.
“There’s one or two possessions that can either help you or hurt you and for us,” as coach Juwaan Howard charitably put it, “we came up short.”
The Zags in full flight are something to behold. They were up 7-0 after just two minutes, 15-4 after five and 49-30 at the half. Barely two minutes past intermission, it was 56-34. The rest of the second half was more a formality than a competitive game. Final score: 85-66.
If you’re sensing a pattern here, you should be. Most of the traffic is going one way.
The Zags scored inside, in transition and from behind the 3-point line. They’re so easy on the eyes with the ball in their hands that it’s easy to overlook how often they got it back without a made USC basket. Unless, that is, you had an assistant coach charting turnovers (seven of their 10 total in the opening 12 minutes), steals, offensive rebounds and desperation shots that probably weren’t a good idea in the first place.
Trojans coach Andy Enfield had that breakdown within arm’s reach when he sat for the postgame press conference. USC shot just 39% from the field, 27% from behind the arc and grabbed a dozen less rebounds. He didn’t need to look.
“It was a little surprising,” he shrugged, “because we’d been playing great basketball.”
So has Baylor, which showed plenty of firepower and some of the same grit on the other end while de-fanging No. 3 Arkansas a night earlier. The Bears have forced plenty of turnovers against three previous tournament rivals — Wisconsin, Villanova and the aforementioned Razorbacks (15) — with a reputation for taking care of the ball.
Guard Davion Mitchell, a buzzsaw with the ball in his hands, often winds up drawing the toughest defensive assignment, too.
“Obviously, I think he’s the best defender in the country,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. He added: “We call him Off Night, because people tend to have off nights with him. But he’s a nightmare to bring the ball up against. And he sets the tone for our defense.”
Gonzaga and Baylor were scheduled to play in early December before the Zags program ran afoul of the sport’s COVID-19 protocol. Both were in a separate class from the rest of college basketball at the time. Then Baylor’s bout with the virus came late in the season, requiring a pause of three weeks plus.
After everything else fans weathered throughout this wacky season, a few more days might finally deliver a national championship game worth the wait.
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Juzang sends No. 11 seed UCLA past Michigan to Final Four

By DAVE SKRETTA AP Basketball Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — UCLA has made more trips to the Final Four than any program but North Carolina.
None of the 19 was more surprising than this one.
After sneaking into the NCAA Tournament off four straight losses, and barely surviving Michigan State in their First Four game, the Bruins took down top-seeded Michigan on Tuesday night to continue a run for the ages.
Johnny Juzang poured in 28 points while playing most of the second half on a hurt ankle, and coach Mick Cronin’s bunch of stubborn overachievers survived a set of nail-biting misses by the Wolverines in the final seconds for a 51-49 victory that made the Bruins only the fifth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals.
“These guys get all the credit,” said Cronin, who had never been to the Elite Eight in 18 years as a college head coach, much less the Final Four. “Unbelievable heart, toughness. Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it.”
They’ll be big underdogs again Saturday night: Overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga is up next.
“We know our next assignment is tough,” Cronin said, “but their resiliency is unbelievable.”
The Wolverines (23-5) missed their final eight shots, including a 3-pointer by Mike Smith with a couple seconds left and another by Franz Wagner at the buzzer, sending the Bruins (22-9) flying off the bench in a wild celebration.
They’re the second First Four team to make the Final Four after VCU a decade ago.
“This is something growing up you dream about,” said Juzang, the first player to score at least half of his team’s points in a regional final victory since Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson in 1960. “It’s just so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful sharing this moment with your brothers.”
After dictating the pace all game, eschewing the slick style of Michigan in favor of a rock fight, it only seemed fitting that the underdog Bruins — having won two tourney games in overtime already — would take another to the buzzer.
They were clinging to a 50-49 lead when Michigan called a timeout with 19 seconds to go, intending to set up the game’s final shot. Wolverines coach Juwan Howard set up an open 3-point look for the cold-shooting Wagner, who missed almost everything, and Eli Brooks also missed a put-back before UCLA finally corralled the rebound.
It was merely the start of a chaotic finish.
The Wolverines quickly fouled and sent Juzang to the line, where he missed the second of his two free throws with 6.3 seconds left. Michigan grabbed the rebound and called another timeout. This time, Howard had Smith race up court and unload a good look from the wing that was halfway down before bouncing back out.
The buzzer sounded and UCLA began to celebrate, only for the officials to put a half-second back on the clock.
That was enough time for Michigan to inbound one last time to Wagner, who again let fly a 3-pointer that clanked off the iron — and finally gave the Bruins freedom to spring from their benches for their first Final Four trip since 2008.
“We got the look, got the shot we wanted,” Howard said. “There’s not much you can do with a point-five, but that shot, it was a nice little heave. Unfortunately it didn’t go in.”
Hunter Dickinson led the Wolverines (23-5) with 11 points, but nothing came easy for the Big Ten freshman of the year — or anyone else in maize and blue. They were 3 of 11 beyond the arc, shot 39% overall and couldn’t make one at the end.
“They played extremely hard. They earned that win,” Brooks said. “I’m not going to take anything away from them. They made everything challenging.”
The No. 1 seed in the East Region, the Wolverines had confidently strolled onto the court about 30 minutes before officials even rolled out balls for pregame warmups. They almost looked bored as they milled around, some listening to their music, others catching glimpses of the Southern California-Gonzaga game on the screens hanging over the court.
The Bulldogs won so easily it must have lulled them to sleep.
Instead of the crisp passing, unselfishness and eye-pleasing positionless basketball that carried Michigan to three easy wins in the tournament, there was sloppy ballhandling, off-balance jumpers and breakdowns on defense.
Then there was Juzang, who scored 14 of the Bruins’ first 16 points. Whether it was a step-back 3-pointer, floater in the lane or drive to the bucket, one of March’s breakout stars simply willed UCLA to a 27-23 halftime lead.
“Every point he got,” Howard said with a shake of his head, “he worked hard for.”
The Bruins stretched their lead to 34-25 before Juzang twisted his right ankle during a rebounding scrum, sending him to the bench to get it taped. He was only out a couple of minutes, but Michigan took advantage. Dickinson and Brooks each had back-to-back baskets, wiping out most of UCLA’s hard-earned lead.
Then, two programs quite familiar with college basketball’s biggest stage kept trading blows the rest of the way.
“It was a Big Ten battle royal game,” Cronin said. “Just an awesome, awesome effort by our kids. All credit goes to them.”
Gonzaga has won two of three against the Bruins, though they’ve split their two meetings in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA won a regional semifinal in 2006 and the Bulldogs returned the favor in the 2015 regional semifinals.
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