Don’t fret about UCLA. Resilience is part of the Bruins’ March Madness style

Sacramento, Calif., March 16, 2023 – UCLA's Kenneth Nwuba grabs a rebound from Northwestern's Brooks Barnhizer.

UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba scores a rebound ahead of Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer in the Bruins’ 68-63 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Instinct will be to point to Saturday as proof of why UCLA can’t win a national championship.

Calmer minds will offer the Bruins fleeing Northwestern as a reason. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on the way.

A lot went wrong for the Bruins at Golden 1 Center. But somehow they never let the Wildcats overtake them. Somehow they won.

Her 68-63 win over Northwestern was more about her determination than her quick wit, more about her comfort in doing whatever it took to win than her dominance in any particular statistical category.

This was about Tyger Campbell missing all seven of his field goal attempts but sinking every one of his dozen free throws.

This involved Adem Bona missing a few free throws only to hit a critical block on the Wildcats’ next offensive game, leading to a three-point from David Singleton, who gave UCLA a six-point advantage with 1 : 52 to play.

“You have to be able to play situational winning basketball,” Cronin said, “because situations change.”

The situation also changed for Kansas earlier in the day. The day before, the situation changed for Purdue. Kansas and Purdue did not survive. UCLA did.

The Bruins are now one of only three teams in the country to have made the Sweet 16 in each of the last three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga can become fourth by defeating Texas Christian on Sunday.

This isn’t an accident.

“When I got the job, people started asking about the playstyle,” Cronin said. “WIN. We have to teach guys how to win. There are many ways to win.”

Like exploiting transition opportunities to build a 35-25 half-time lead.

The Bruins only made one fewer turnover than the Wildcats in the first half, but the difference was in how they dealt with their opponents’ mistakes. In the first 20 minutes, the Bruins held a 13-0 advantage in fast break points and an 11-3 lead in turnover points scored.

“I thought that was great because they’re such a good half-court defense team,” Cronin said.

The early lead proved valuable.

Northwestern finished the game with a 34-28 lead in rebounds, including 14-3 on offensive glass. That resulted in the Wildcats attempting 59 shots on the Bruins’ 44.

“If we had thrown the ball back,” Cronin said, “we would have controlled the whole game.”

Instead, the Bruins found themselves tied 45-45 with 11:26 remaining in the game.

UCLA's David Singleton (34) celebrates after a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday.

UCLA’s David Singleton (34) celebrates after a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday. (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 that seriously threatened the Bruins in the second as all 16 points were scored by Audige after halftime.

“We countered with a little trap on their pick and rolls that slowed their offense,” Cronin said.

The Wildcats missed 12 of their last 14 field goal attempts.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. finished the race with 24 points. Amari Bailey scored 14 points.

Another 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 shoot enough,” Cronin said. “I’m still working on figuring that out.”

In their first two games of that NCAA tournament, the Bruins erased the notion that losing their best defensive player would eventually catch up to them. The Bruins have proven themselves just as cruel without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They still fight for every shot, still throw themselves at every loose ball.

They may have lost the player who best embodied their defensive philosophy, but they still have their spiritual leader on the sidelines. You still have cronin. Players have adopted Cronin’s demeanor and play with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile on the court.

UCLA’s next tournament stop will be in Las Vegas. Until then, Cronin will have a few issues to deal with, including the possible loss of Singleton, who sprained an ankle in the last minute. But the coach has already taken care of the most important thing. Cronin has made winning the kind of game the Bruins won on Saturday second nature.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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