The instinct will be to point to Saturday as proof that UCLA can’t win a national championship.
Calmer minds will offer the blowout against Northwestern as a reason why the Bruins can. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team are on their way.
Many faulted the Bruins at Golden 1 Center. Yet somehow, they never let the wild boars get ahead of them. Somehow, they won.
Northwestern’s 68-63 victory was more about their determination than their shooting ability, more about their comfort in doing whatever it took to win than their dominance in any statistical category.
This Tyger Campbell missed all seven of his field goal attempts but sank every one of his dozen free throws.
After Adem Bona missed a pair of free throws, he got a critical block on the Wildcats’ next offensive play, thanks to a 3-pointer by David Singleton that gave UCLA a six-point lead with 1:52 to play.
“You have to be able to win in situational basketball,” Cronin said, “because situations change.”
Things also changed for Kansas in the morning. Circumstances changed for Purdue the day before. Kansas and Purdue did not survive. UCLA did it.
The Bruins are now one of three teams in the country to reach the Sweet 16 in the past three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga can be fourth by defeating Texas Christian on Sunday.
This is not an accident.
“When I got the job, people started asking about my playing style,” Cronin said. “WIN. We have to teach the boys to win. There are many ways to win.”
Like capitalizing on transition opportunities to build a 35-25 halftime lead.
The Bruins committed one less turnover than the Wildcats in the first half, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. In the first 20 minutes, the Bruins had a 13-0 advantage in rushing points and an 11-3 advantage in points scored.
“I thought that was big because they’re a good defensive team in the middle of the court,” Cronin said.
The early lead was valuable.
Northwestern finished with a 34-28 rebounding advantage, including 14-3 on the offensive glass. As a result, the Wildcats attempted 59 shots to the Bruins’ 44.
“If we could have rebounded the ball,” Cronin said, “we would have controlled the whole game.”
Instead, the Bruins found themselves tied 45-45 with 11:26 left in the game.
UCLA’s David Singleton (34) celebrates after making a three-pointer during the second half Saturday against Northwestern.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Seven-foot center Matthew Nicholson kept the Wildcats in the game in the first half. Guard Chase Audige led the Wildcats on a run in the second in which the Bruins seriously threatened, as all 16 of Audige’s points came after halftime.
“We responded with a little pick-and-roll trap that slowed down the offense,” Cronin said.
The Wildcats lost 12 of their last 14 attempts.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. He finished with 24 points. Amari Bailey scored 14 points.
Still a freshman and already the team’s most talented player, Bailey made five of seven shots from the field.
“It’s my fault he didn’t get enough shots,” Cronin said. “We’re still working on figuring that out.”
In the first two games of this NCAA tournament, the Bruins thought the loss of their best defensive player would finally catch up. The Bruins have proven to be just as tough without Jaylen Clark as they are with him. They still face every shot, they still pounce on every loose ball.
They may have lost the player who best personified their defensive philosophy, but they still have a spiritual leader on their side. They still have Cronin. The players have embraced Cronin’s demeanor, playing with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile on the court.
UCLA’s next tournament will be in Las Vegas. In between, Cronin will have some issues to deal with, including the potential loss of Singleton, who sprained his ankle in the final minute. But the coach has already taken care of the most important thing. Cronin has made the Bruins’ win Saturday look like a game-winner.