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

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

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

Calmer heads will offer the breakout against Northwestern as a reason for the Bruins. 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 pass them. Somehow they won.

His 68-63 victory over Northwestern was more about his determination than his shooting ability, more about his comfort in doing whatever it took to win than his dominance in any particular statistical category.

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

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

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

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.

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 could be fourth, defeating Texas Christian on Sunday.

This is not an accident.

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

How to take advantage of transition opportunities to build a 35-25 halftime lead.

The Bruins committed just one fewer turnovers 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 held a 13-0 lead in breakout points and an 11-3 lead in points scored on turnovers.

“I thought it was great because they are a good half-court defensive team,” Cronin said.

The head start proved to be valuable.

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

“If we had recovered the ball,” Cronin said, “we would have controlled the entire game.”

Instead, the Bruins were tied at 45-45 with 11:26 left in the game.

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

UCLA’s David Singleton (34) celebrates after making a three-pointer against Northwestern in Saturday’s second half. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

6-foot center Matthew Nicholson kept the Wildcats in the game in the first half. Guard Chase Audige led the Wildcats on a drive that seriously threatened the Bruins in the second as all of Audige’s 16 points were scored after halftime.

“We reacted with a little trap on his pick and rolls that slowed his offense down,” said Cronin.

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

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

As a freshman and already the most accomplished player on the team, Bailey hit five of seven field goal attempts.

“It’s my fault he didn’t hit enough,” Cronin said. “Still working to figure that out.”

In their first two games of this NCAA Tournament, the Bruins eliminated the notion that the loss of their best defensive player would eventually catch up with them. The Bruins proved to be just as fierce without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They still contest every pitch, still throw themselves at every dropped 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 behavior, playing with an intensity that bordered on rage. They don’t smile on the court.

The next stop of the UCLA tournament will be Las Vegas. Until then, Cronin will have some issues to deal with, including the possible loss of Singleton, who sprained his ankle in the final minute. But the coach has already taken care of the most important part. Cronin 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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