Instinct will be to point to Saturday as evidence for why UCLA can’t win a national championship.
Calmer heads will offer the escape against Northwestern as a reason the Bruins can. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on its way.
Plenty went wrong for the Bruins at Golden 1 Center. Yet, somehow, they never let the Wildcats overtake them. Somehow, they won.
Their 68-63 victory over Northwestern was more about their determination than their shot-making ability, more about their comfort doing whatever was necessary to win than their domination in any particular statistical category.
This was about Tyger Campbell missing all seven of his field-goal attempts but sinking each of his dozen free throws.
This was about Adem Bona missing a couple of free throws, only to come up with a critical block on the Wildcats’ next offensive play, leading to a three-pointer by David Singleton that opened up a six-point advantage for UCLA with 1:52 to play.
“You gotta be able to play situational winning basketball,” Cronin said, “because situations change.”
Situations also changed for Kansas earlier in the day. Situations changed for Purdue the day before. Kansas and Purdue didn’t survive. UCLA did.
The Bruins are now one of just three teams in the country that have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga can be the fourth, by defeating Texas Christian on Sunday.
This isn’t an accident.
“When I got the job, people started asking about style of play,” Cronin said. “W-I-N. We got to teach guys how to win. There’s a lot of ways to win.”
Like taking advantage of transition opportunities to build a 35-25 halftime lead.
The Bruins committed just one fewer turnover than the Wildcats in the first half, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. Over the first 20 minutes, the Bruins had a 13-0 advantage in fast-break points and an 11-3 edge in points scored off turnovers.
“I thought that was big because they’re such a good half-court defensive team,” Cronin said.
The early lead proved valuable.
Northwestern finished with a 34-28 edge in rebounds, including 14-3 on the offensive glass. That resulted in the Wildcats’ attempting 59 shots to the Bruins’ 44.
“If we would have rebounded the ball,” Cronin said, “we would have controlled the whole game.”
Instead, the Bruins found themselves tied at 45-45 with 11:26 remaining in the game.
Seven-foot center Matthew Nicholson kept the Wildcats in the game in the first half. Guard Chase Audige led the Wildcats on a run that seriously threatened the Bruins in the second, as all 16 of Audige’s points were scored after halftime.
“We countered with a little trap on their pick and rolls that slowed their offense down,” Cronin said.
The Wildcats missed 12 of their last 14 field-goal attempts.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. 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. “Still working on figure that one out.”
In their first two games of this NCAA tournament, the Bruins obliterated the notion that the loss of their best defensive player would eventually catch up to them. The Bruins have proven to be as ferocious without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They still contest every shot, still throw themselves at every loose ball.
They might have lost the player who best personified their defensive philosophy, but they still have their spiritual leader on the sidelines. They still have Cronin. The players have adopted Cronin’s demeanor, playing with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile on the court.
UCLA’s next tournament stop will be in Las Vegas. Between now and then, Cronin will have some problems to address, including the potential loss of Singleton, who sprained an ankle in the final minute. But the coach has already taken care of the most important part. Cronin has made winning the kind of game the Bruins won on Saturday second nature.