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

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

UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba grabs a rebound in front of Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer during the second half of the Bruins’ 68-63 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

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

Calmer heads will offer the run against Northwestern as a reason why the Bruins will. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team are on their way.

The Bruins failed to score in the second half. They were plagued by the Wildcats’ 7-foot center, Matthew Nicholson. There were stretches where they couldn’t stop guard Chase Audige.

Somehow they never relinquished the lead. Somehow they won.

Their 68-63 victory over Northwestern was more about their determination than their ability to make shots, more about their comfort in doing what was necessary to win than their dominance in any particular statistical category.

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

The situations also changed for Kansas earlier in the day. The situation changed for Purdue the day before. 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 can become the fourth by defeating Texas Christian on Sunday.

This is not an accident.

In the first two games of this NCAA Tournament, the Bruins obliterated the notion that the loss of their best defenseman would eventually catch up with them.

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The Bruins have proven to be just as atrocious without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They have contested every shot, pounced on every loose ball.

They may 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. They play with an intensity that borders on anger. They don’t smile.

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

UCLA’s David Singleton celebrates after making a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The thinking led to a 35-25 lead at halftime. The Bruins committed just one less turnover than the Wildcats, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. Through the first 20 minutes, the Bruins held 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 just 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 finished the game with 34 rebounds to the Bruins’ 28. The Wildcats attempted 59 field goals, 15 more than the Bruins.

“If we returned the ball, we control the whole game,” Cronin said.

Instead, the Bruins found themselves tied at 45-45 with 11:26 left.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. finished with 24 points, 14 of which were scored in the first half. Amari Bailey scored 14 points.

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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 after a shoulder injury. But like Campbell, he did what he could. With the Bruins holding a 59-56 lead with 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 adjusted, 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,” Cronin said.

Cronin will need to make more adjustments in future rounds. He has to figure out how to deal with size. He needs to get the ball in Bailey’s hands more. But he has already taken care of the most important part. He has already taught his players how to win.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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