UCLA has made overcoming adversity its signature March Madness

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

Calmer heads will offer the breakout against Northwestern as the reason the Bruins can. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on the way.

A lot has gone wrong for the Bruins at the Golden 1 Center. Yet somehow they never let the Wildcats get past them. Somehow they won.

Their 68-63 victory over Northwestern had more to do with their determination than their ability to shoot, more with their comfort in doing whatever it takes to win than with their dominance in any particular statistical category.

It was about Tyger Campbell missing his seven field goal attempts but sinking all of his twelve free throws.

It was about Adem Bona missing a few free throws, only to get to a critical block on the Wildcats’ next offensive play, leading to a David Singleton three-pointer that opened up a six-point advantage for UCLA with 1:52 to go. play.

“You have to be able to play situational game-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 did not survive. UCLA did.

The Bruins are now one of only three teams in the country to have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past three years, the others being Arkansas and Houston. Gonzaga can be the fourth, beating Texas Christian on Sunday.

It’s not an accident.

“When I got the job, people started asking about the style of play,” Cronin said. “WINNING. You have to teach guys how to win. There are many ways to win.”

Like taking advantage of transition opportunities to build a 35-25 halftime lead.

The Bruins committed just one less turnover than the Wildcats in the first half, but the difference was in what they did with their opponents’ mistakes. In the first 20 minutes, the Bruins had a 13-0 advantage in quick points and an 11-3 advantage in points scored on turnovers.

“I thought it was important because they’re such a good defensive team on the half court,” Cronin said.

The first advance proved invaluable.

Northwestern finished with a 34-28 advantage in rebounds, including 14-3 on the offensive glass. That allowed the Wildcats to attempt 59 shots to the Bruins’ 44.

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

Instead, the Bruins were tied at 45-45 with 11:26 to play.

UCLA’s David Singleton (34) celebrates after scoring three 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 Audige’s 16 points came after halftime.

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

The Wildcats have 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 most talented player on the team, Bailey made five of seven shots from the field.

“It’s my fault he didn’t get enough shots,” Cronin said. “Still figuring that one out.”

In their first two games of this NCAA tournament, the Bruins erased the idea that the loss of their best defensive player would eventually catch up with them. The Bruins have proven to be as fierce without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They always contest every shot, always pounce on every stray ball.

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

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

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