HomeSportsDon't worry about UCLA. Resilience is part of the Bruins' March...

Don’t worry about UCLA. Resilience is part of the Bruins’ March Madness style

UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba grabs a rebound for Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer during the second half of the Bruins’ 68-63 win in Saturday’s NCAA tournament second round. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The instinct will be to point to Saturday night as proof why UCLA won’t win a national championship.

Calmer heads will offer the breakaway against Northwestern as the reason for the Bruins. Ignore the small margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on its way.

The Bruins failed to score in the second half. They were troubled by the Wildcats’ 7-foot center, Matthew Nicholson. There were stretches where they couldn’t stop guard Chase Audige.

Somehow they never relinquished their lead. Somehow they won.

Their 68-63 victory over Northwestern had more to do with their determination than their ability to take shots, more with their comfort in doing what it took to win than their dominance in any given statistical category.

“You have to be able to play situationally winning basketball,” Cronin said, “because situations change.”

The situation for Kansas also changed earlier in the day. Situations changed for Purdue the day before. Kansas and Purdue did not survive. UCLA did.

The Bruins are now one of only three teams in the country to reach the Sweet 16 in the past three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga can become the fourth by beating Texas Christian on Sunday.

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This is not an accident.

In their first two games of this NCAA tournament, the Bruins destroyed any idea that the loss of their best defensive player would eventually catch up with them.

The Bruins have proven to be just as ferocious without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They fought every shot, threw themselves at every loose ball.

They may have lost the player who best personified their defense philosophy, but they still have their spiritual leader on the sidelines. They still have Cronin. The players have adopted Cronin’s stance. They play with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile.

UCLA's David Singleton celebrates after making a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday.

UCLA’s David Singleton celebrates after making a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The mentality gave them a 35-25 half-time lead. The Bruins made just one turnover less than the Wildcats, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. Through the first 20 minutes, the Bruins held a 13-0 lead in fastbreak points and an 11-3 lead in points scored on turnovers.

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Boo Buie, who came into the game as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, had only five points at halftime. Audige, the second leading scorer, had none.

UCLA’s focus on the perimeter created openings for Nicholson, who finished the game with 17 points.

Northwestern also had a noticeable advantage on the glass, the Wildcats finishing the game with 34 rebounds to the Bruins’ 28. The Wildcats attempted 59 field goals, 15 more than the then Bruins.

“If we bounce the ball back, we control the whole game,” Cronin said.

Instead, the Bruins tied at 45–45 with 11:26 remaining.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. finished with 24 points, 14 of which were scored in the first half. Amari Bailey scored 14 points.

They help make up for a sluggish offensive night from Tyger Campbell, who missed all seven of his field goal attempts. But Campbell contributed what he could, sinking all 12 of his free throws.

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Striker Adem Bona was limited by a shoulder injury on his return. But like Campbell, he did what he could. With the Bruins holding onto a 59-56 lead and 2:23 left in the game, Bona missed a pair of free throws. However, on the Wildcats’ ensuing possession, Bona blocked an Audige layup. David Singleton made a three and the Bruins’ lead was suddenly back to six.

Cronin also adjusted and made changes to slow down Audige, who scored 16 points in the second half.

“We countered with a little trap on their pick and roll that slowed down their attack,” Cronin said.

Cronin will need to make more adjustments in future rounds. He will have to figure out how to deal with size. He will have to get the ball more into Bailey’s hands. But he has already taken care of the most important thing. He has already taught his players how to win.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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