UCLA loses lead, suffers another injury, but beats Northwestern and returns to Sweet 16

UCLA’s Amari Bailey celebrates in the final minute of a 68-63 victory over Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The scene inside the UCLA locker room was reminiscent of what you might expect after the end of a long road trip in late January.

Players sat in their lockers, some looking at phones, others lost in conversations with teammates, no one celebrating Saturday at the Golden 1 Center. The only reminder that this was a special time of year was the NCAA tournament big bracket positioned at one end of the room, the Bruins advancing, allowing sticker applicator Russell Stong IV to move UCLA to the next round.

When a reporter asked senior guard David Singleton what the team would do to celebrate this latest triumph as part of another deep run in March, Stong raised a triumphant fist in the air from his seat three lockers down.

“Filming session and team recovery”, intervened the participant.

They are like that. This is what they do.

For the third time in as many seasons, UCLA made the Sweet 16.

The Bruins continue to play because another trend persisted: the final minutes remained winning.

Shaking off a huge Northwest comeback that wiped out a 13-point second-half deficit, second-seed UCLA held off the seventh-seed Wildcats to a blistering 68-63 second-half victory. round.

It was a redemptive triumph for the Bruins.

UCLA's Tyger Campbell took a chance against Northwestern in Saturday's first half.

UCLA’s Tyger Campbell took a chance against Northwestern in Saturday’s first half. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Guard Tyger Campbell, who missed a late free throw in the Pac-12 tournament championship, went 12-12, including six in a row in the final three minutes.

Singleton, who was held scoreless in the title loss to Arizona, buried his only three-pointer of the night to give the Bruins a 62-56 lead with 1:52 left.

Rookie guard Dylan Andrews, who missed a late three-pointer against Arizona a week ago, hit a three-pointer at almost the same spot on the court with nine minutes left against Northwestern. Andrews also hit two free throws with 20 seconds left in Singleton, who injured his ankle and had to leave the game.

Andrews said assistant coach Rod Palmer told him in timeout that the Wildcats would likely pick him to shoot free throws, allowing him to start his routine as soon as he stepped on the line.

“Just spin the ball, dribble it twice and clear my mind with a deep breath and just me and the basket, that’s all I can see,” said Andrews. “I did both.”

There was widespread relief when Singleton returned to the bench before the end of the game and wiggled his fingers to applause from the crowd as he left the court.

“I just sprained my ankle,” said Singleton, who was diagnosed with a sprain. “I am fine.”

It took all-round contributions for the Bruins to thwart a valiant effort by Northwestern in what qualified as the greatest game in Big Ten high school basketball history.

UCLA's Kenneth Nwuba struggles for a loose ball against Northwestern's Ty Berry in the first half.

UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba struggles for a loose ball against Northwestern’s Ty Berry in the first half. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Sacramento, Calif., March 16, 2023 - UCLA's Ammari Bailey, left, and Adem Bona battle for the loose ball.

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Adem Bona, right, battle for the loose ball against Northwestern in the second half. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 24 points to pass Bill Walton on UCLA’s all-time leading scorers list, Amari Bailey added 14 points and Campbell had 12 with seven assists and no turnovers before throwing the ball into the air after the final buzzer.

UCLA (31-5) will face the winner of Sunday’s second-round game between Gonzaga and Texas Christian in a regional semifinal on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Bruins joined Houston and Arkansas as the only teams to reach the final three Sweet 16s, with Gonzaga possibly joining them.

Some special support will accompany the Bruins on their next stop.

“Yes, I’m going to Vegas!” injured guard Jaylen Clark tweeted, adding a happy tears emoji.

An incredibly intense back-and-forth game was tilting in UCLA’s direction when Singleton, who had lost his first four three-pointers, confidently went up and finally got one to go, giving his team the final six-point lead.

“Once you don’t believe in yourself, it’s over,” Singleton said. “So I always have confidence – I think all the shots are going in.”

Northwestern (22-12) never came within four points the rest of the way, Boo Buie’s missed layup with 13 seconds left and his team down six effectively ending the Wildcats’ chances. Buie finished with 18 points, Matthew Nicholson added 17 and Chase Audige had all 16 of his in the second half for the Wildcats.

Jaquez now has 1,773 points in four seasons, besting Walton’s 1,767 in three seasons.

“I’ll tell Bill when I see him,” Jaquez said of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Singleton said the Bruins would celebrate upon their return to Westwood, presumably meeting at Stong’s apartment. There will be a team shooting session alongside epic video game battles.

“We have a TV in the game,” Singleton said, “the other TV we have in Super Smash Bros.”

The party won’t get too intense, everyone knowing there are more games to play, more wins to secure.

“We’re going to celebrate, but we know the job isn’t done,” Singleton said. “We made it to the Sweet 16, but we’re going to a school they don’t hang on to but national championships.”

Two wins down, four to go.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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