The scene inside the UCLA locker room resembled what you might expect after the end of a long trip in late January.
Players sat at their lockers, some looking at phones, others lost in conversation with teammates, no one celebrating. The only reminder that this was a special time of year was the large NCAA tournament bracket positioned at one end of the room, the Bruins having advanced, allowing designated sticker slapper Russell Stong IV to move UCLA into the Sweet 16.
As a reporter asked senior guard David Singleton what the team was going to do to celebrate this latest deep run into March, Stong raised a triumphant fist from his seat three lockers over.
“Team film session and recovery,” Stong interjected.
This is who they are. This is what they do.
For the third time in as many seasons, UCLA is advancing to the tournament’s second week. The Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 again because another trend persisted Saturday at Golden 1 Center: The final minutes continued to be winning time.
Shaking off a huge Northwestern rally that erased a 13-point deficit, second-seeded UCLA held off the seventh-seeded Wildcats for a 68-63 victory in the second round.
There was relief as Singleton, whose only three-pointer of the night had provided a late six-point lead, reported not being seriously hurt after he went down with 20 seconds left. He had to be helped off the court but returned and wiggled his fingers to cheers from the crowd.
“I just rolled my ankle,” said Singleton, who was diagnosed with a sprain. “I’m fine.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 24 points while passing Bill Walton on UCLA’s all-time scoring list, Amari Bailey added 14 points and Tyger Campbell had 12 — all at the line — for the Bruins, who pulled away after making the needed plays in the final minutes. Campbell hurled the ball into the air after the final second ticked off.
UCLA (31-5) will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Gonzaga and Texas Christian in a regional semifinal Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Bruins will be rejoined by a special visitor.
“Yay I get to go to Vegas!” injured guard Jaylen Clark tweeted, adding a happy-tears emoji.
UCLA joined Houston and Arkansas as the only teams to make it to the last three Sweet 16s, with Gonzaga possibly joining them.
Boo Buie scored 18 points, Matthew Nicholson had 17 and Chase Audige all 16 of his in the second half for Northwestern (22-12), which had its chances in the biggest basketball game in school history.
An incredibly intense, back-and-forth game was tilting in UCLA’s direction when Singleton buried a three for a 62-56 lead with 1:45 left, after an Adem Bona block had given their team the possession. Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer made two free throws to pull the Wildcats within 62-58.
Northwestern got the ball back after Jaquez airballed a tough baseline jumper that sailed over the rim, but the Wildcats missed two consecutive shots and Campbell grabbed the rebound with 42 seconds left, was fouled and made his final two free throws in a perfect night from the line — he was 0 for 7 from the field — to extend the advantage to 64-58 before Buie made a short jumper with 23 seconds left.
The Wildcats fouled Singleton, who was in such pain he threw an arm around trainer Tyler Lesher while walking down on the court. Dylan Andrews made both free throws with 20 seconds left before Buie missed a driving layup, effectively ending the Wildcats’ chances.
A “U-C-L-A!” chant echoed inside the arena after Andrews’ three-pointer from the wing pushed the Bruins into a 51-45 lead and capped a 6-0 surge. Just as it had earlier in the second half, Northwestern rallied, coming within 51-50 on a Buie three-pointer.
It looked like UCLA might be on the way to a blowout when Bailey spun around Buie for a layup to give the Bruins a 41-28 lead early in the second half.
But in a sign of things to come, Jaquez airballed a three-pointer and the Northwestern fans let him hear it. The Wildcats then started finding the rhythm that had eluded them in the first half, going on an 11-2 push to pull within 43-39 and force UCLA coach Mick Cronin to call time out as Singleton and Bona argued on their way to the bench.
Bona threw down a dunk coming out of the timeout but immediately clutched the left shoulder he hurt during the Pac-12 tournament and departed. Northwestern quickly pulled into a 45-45 tie when UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba was called for goaltending on a driving layup by Buie.
Jaquez now has 1,773 points in four seasons, surpassing Walton’s 17,67 in three seasons.
“I’ll be sure to tell Bill when I see him,” Jaquez cracked.
After UCLA’s first-round victory, Cronin joked that his sister, Kelly, would be rooting for Northwestern because she was an alumna. Seeing the spot, Kelly Cronin’s students at Summit Country Day High in Cincinnati, where she’s the principal, posted Northwestern signs in her office, but to avoid any confusion she wore a UCLA T-shirt.
“She would never root against me,” Mick Cronin said.
It would have been a futile effort anyway.