SACRAMENTO — In the end, it came down to toughness. Mental, physical, and any other type of toughness you can think of.
UCLA is still alive in the NCAA tournament because it survived a crucible Saturday, 40 minutes of grown-man basketball. The Bruins hit Northwestern hard early, weathered a haymaker in the second half, had enough left to finish off the Wildcats and advance to the Sweet 16 … and along the way they also weathered the panic of what could have been another serious injury.
When senior guard David Singleton went to the floor clutching his right leg in the final minute of UCLA’s 68-63 victory, the entire arena feared the worst, not just those in UCLA’s traveling party. A team that already lost its best defensive player, Jaylen Clark, for the season two weeks ago, and then had big man Adem Bona suffer a shoulder injury during the Pac-12 tournament, had to have been wondering who was sticking pins into which voodoo doll.
But this one shouldn’t be catastrophic. Singleton was helped off the floor and down the tunnel, but reappeared on the bench by game’s end and was walking steadily after the game. UCLA spokesman Alex Timiraos confirmed that Singleton had a slightly sprained right ankle, which likely would not prevent him from playing when the Bruins play again Thursday night in Las Vegas against either TCU or Gonzaga.
Similarly, Bona played 21 minutes in his first game back after his injury, suffered last Friday night against Oregon. He had one moment in the second half when he aggravated his shoulder, went to the bench briefly, then re-entered the game.
“He’s extremely sore,” coach Mick Cronin said. “If he gets hit on it in any way, he’s sore.
“The fact that he’s out there shows you what a warrior he is. I mean, he’s playing with a brace on. He could get a hit on it, he could reach for a ball. Any type of movement is going to aggravate him, and it’s just going to be like that.”
It’s toughness. It’s the characteristic that Cronin brought with him from Cincinnati four years ago, and it is what has helped push these Bruins to 31 victories – and, as it turns out, the highest remaining seed in the West Region after Kansas was stunned by Arkansas Saturday.
It’s what both of these teams possessed, in triplicate. It enabled UCLA to survive despite being outrebounded 34-28 and giving up 14 offensive rebounds to Northwestern (22-12). It enabled the Wildcats to overcome a 12-point first-half deficit to tie the game with 11:26 left, and it allowed the Bruins to shrug off the 17-4 Northwestern run that had erased that lead.
“They’re a grizzled, tough team,” Cronin said. “They hit some tough shots. (Boo) Buie hit a step-back three, (Chase) Audige hit some tough ones. Their hustle on the offensive glass really bothered us. And it didn’t surprise me that they came back at us.”
The feeling was mutual.
“That was just a hard-playing game, man,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “We knew they were going to do that. I think the greatest compliment for these guys (his team) is I think they know we were going to do that as well.”
Audige confirmed that.
“We kind of knew it was going to be a war,” he said. “We started out really, really cold. I think I airballed my first shot, hit the side of the backboard with my second one. We were trying to hang our hat on defense and try to get as many stops as we could.
“I mean, credit to UCLA. They made more plays down the stretch. They’re a really good team. They got some really good players. But we expected to play that type of game today.”
And maybe this is what has put these Bruins in position to contend for their first national championship in 28 seasons. They don’t scare, and they don’t waver.
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The beauty, and often the curse, of March Madness is that expectations can overtake a team. Favorites can find themselves outplayed by teams that have nothing to lose. That’s happened in this tournament, especially – and in this venue, particularly, where Arizona and Missouri were taken down by a Princeton team that isn’t allowed to have one scholarship player, under Ivy League rules.
If those gremlins exist in the minds of the Bruins, no one will ever know. They’ve lost five times this season, and the only one that might have been considered questionable was the February loss to USC at Galen Center – and that was a Trojan team that lost by two at Pauley Pavilion and probably was better at the time than it got credit for.
Otherwise, this is a workmanlike team. Cronin is fond of saying that “fun is spelled W-I-N,” and he reiterated after Saturday night’s game: “We just try to teach guys how to play winning basketball. You got to be able to play situational winning basketball because situations change. You got to play smart.”
And you know you’ve made an impact when veteran players reinforce those tenets.
“I think I told (the freshmen), after you play your first game you’re not really a freshman any more,” Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “We expect you to step up. There’s a reason Coach recruited you. Coach takes pride in the players he recruits to this program. You can see that in the freshmen he’s brought in.”
Amari Bailey is the most notable example, but Bona, Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon have played significant roles, and in fact it was Andrews’ 3-pointer with nine minutes left that helped blunt a Northwestern run, and his two free throws with 20.3 seconds left – right after Singleton’s injury – that helped put it away.
See, the kids are tough, too.