Instinct will point to Saturday night as proof of why UCLA will never win a national championship.
The quiet Chiefs as the Bruins’ cause would offer a rushing reprieve against Northwestern. Ignore the small margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on the way.
The Bruins were unable to score in the second half. They were upset by the Wildcats’ 7-foot center, Matthew Nicholson. There were certain stretches in which he could not stop guard Chase Audige.
Somehow, he never gave up his lead. Somehow they won.
Their 68–63 win over Northwestern was more about their determination than their shot-making ability, more about doing whatever was necessary to win than their dominance in any particular statistical category. .
“You’ll be able to play situational basketball,” Cronin said, “because situations change.”
Conditions changed for Kansas on the first day as well. Conditions changed the day before for Purdue. Kansas and Purdue did not survive. UCLA did it.
The Bruins are now one of only three teams in the country to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the past three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga will be ranked fourth if it beats Texas Christian on Sunday.
This is not an accident.
In their first two games of this NCAA tournament, the Bruins shrugged off the notion that the loss of their best defensive player would eventually catch up to them.
The Bruins have proven to be just as brutal without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. He has fought every shot, thrown himself at every loose ball.
They may have lost the player who best expressed their defensive philosophy, but they still have their spiritual leader. He still has Cronin. The players have adopted Cronin’s demeanor. He plays with an intensity that borders on rage. They don’t smile.
Mindset held a 35–25 lead at halftime. The Bruins committed only one fewer turnover than the Wildcats, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. In the first 20 minutes, the Bruins held a 13–0 advantage in fastbreak points and 11–3 in points made from turnovers.
Boo Bui, who entered the game as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, had only five points at halftime. The other leading scorers Audis 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, with the Wildcats finishing the game with 34 rebounds to the Bruins’ 28. The Wildcats attempted 59 field goals, 15 more than the Bruins.
“If we rebound 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 compensate for a slow offensive night from Tiger Campbell, who missed all seven of his field-goal attempts. But Campbell contributed in whatever way 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 leading 59–56 and with 2:23 left in the game, Bona missed a pair of free throws. However, on the Wildcats’ ensuing possession, Bona intercepted a layup by the Audis. David Singleton made a three and the Bruins’ lead suddenly swelled to six.
Cronin adapted as well, making changes to slow down the Audis, who scored 16 points in the second half.
“We put a little trap on their pick and roll, which slowed their offense down,” Cronin said.
Cronin would have to make further adjustments in future tours. He has to figure out how to deal with the size. He has to get the ball more into Bailey’s hands. But they’ve already taken care of the most important part. He has already taught his players to win.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times,