Instinct will be to point to Saturday night as evidence of why UCLA won’t win a national championship.
Calmer heads will offer the escape against Northwestern as a reason the Bruins will. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on its way.
The Bruins couldn’t score in the second half. They were troubled by the Wildcats’ 7-foot center, Matthew Nicholson. There were stretches in which they couldn’t stop guard Chase Audige.
Somehow, they never relinquished their lead. 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.
“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.
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 have contested every shot, thrown 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 sideline. They still have Cronin. The players have adopted Cronin’s demeanor. They play with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile.
The mindset produced a 35-25 lead at halftime. The Bruins committed just one fewer turnover than the Wildcats, 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 fastbreak points and an 11-3 edge in points scored off turnovers.
Boo Buie, who entered 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 then Bruins.
“If we rebounded the ball, we control the whole game,” Cronin said.
Instead, the Bruins found themselves 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 slow 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.
Forward Adem Bona was limited in his return from a shoulder injury. But like Campbell, he did what he could. With the Bruins holding on to 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 a layup by Audige. David Singleton made a three and the Bruins’ lead was suddenly back to six.
Cronin also adapted, making changes to slow down Audige, who scored 16 points in the second half.
“We countered with a little trap on their pick and rolls that slowed their offense down,” Cronin said.
Cronin will have to make more adjustments in future rounds. He’ll have to figure out how to deal with size. He’ll have to get the ball into Bailey’s hands more. But he’s already taken care of the most important part. He’s already taught his players how to win.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.