For the third time in as many seasons, UCLA advances to the second week of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 again because another trend continued Saturday at the Golden 1 Center: The final minutes continued to buy time.
After shaking off a huge Northwestern rally in which the Wildcats erased a 13-point deficit, second-seeded UCLA held off the seventh-seeded Wildcats for a 68-63 victory in the second round.
The Bruins’ celebration was dampened by another late-season injury.
UCLA senior guard David Singleton, whose only three-pointer of the night had opened a late six-point lead, suffered a right ankle sprain when he slipped with 20 seconds to go. He had to be helped off the field but returned and wagged his fingers as he walked off to cheers from the crowd. He gave reporters one optimistic assessment of his injury: “I just rolled my ankle. I’m fine.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 24 points, Amari Bailey added 14 and Tyger Campbell had 12 for the Bruins, who pulled away after making all the plays they needed to in the final minutes. Campbell tossed the ball into the air as the final second ticked off the clock.
UCLA (31-5) will play the winner of Sunday’s second-round game between Gonzaga and Texas Christian in a regional semifinal Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Boo Buie scored 18 points, Matthew Nicholson had 17 and Chase Audige all 16 in the second half for Northwestern (22-12), which had its chances in the biggest game in school history because of a lack of basketball tradition.
An incredibly intense, back-and-forth game tilted in UCLA’s direction when Singleton buried a three to push the Bruins into a 62-56 lead with 1:45 left after an Adem Bona block had given their team the possession. Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer made two free throws to pull the Wildcats within 62-58.
Northwestern got the ball back after Jaquez airballed a hard baseline jumper that sailed over the rim, but the Wildcats missed two consecutive shots and Campbell grabbed the rebound with 42 seconds left, was fouled and made two free throws to extend the lead to 64 -58 , before Buie made a short jumper with 23 seconds left.
The Wildcats beat Singleton, who was in so much pain that he threw an arm around coach Tyler Lesher as he walked down the field. UCLA’s Dylan Andrews made both free throws with 20 seconds left before Buie missed a driving layup, effectively ending the Wildcats’ chacnes.
A “UCLA!” chant echoed inside the arena after Andrews’ three-pointer from the wing pushed the Bruins into a 51-45 lead and capped a 6-0 surge. Just as it had earlier in the second half, Northwestern rallied to get within 51-50 on a Buie three-pointer.
It looked like UCLA might be headed for a blowout when Bailey spun around Buie to give the Bruins a 41-28 lead early in the second half.
But in a sign of things to come, Jaquez drained a three-pointer and the Northwestern fans let him hear it. The Wildcats then began to find the rhythm that had eluded them in the first half, going on an 11-2 spurt to pull within 43-39 and force UCLA coach Mick Cronin to call timeout as Singleton and Bona argued on the way to the bench.
Bona threw down a dunk coming out of the timeout, but immediately grabbed the left shoulder he hurt during the Pac-12 tournament and left. Northwestern quickly tied the score at 45-45 when UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba was called for goaltending on a driving layup by Buie.
UCLA’s suffocating defense did its job in helping the Bruins take a 35-25 halftime lead, holding Northwestern’s veteran backcourt of Buie and Audige to five points on a combined one-for-eight shooting. Bailey and Andrews were particularly suffocating in their efforts on Buie, denying him run tracks while staying within foul breath.
The Bruins had significantly less success stopping Nicholson, who made all five shots en route to 10 points after scoring on a series of lobs and pick-and-roll plays. All three UCLA big men were equally ineffective in preventing the easy baskets.
In his first appearance since walking off the field during the Pac-12 tournament, Bona struggled early, save for a dunk off a nice pass from Bailey. Bona was called for two fouls in a span of 24 seconds and came out and played just four minutes in the first half.
Nwuba continued his surprising tenure as the Bruins’ best big man, blocking a shot that sparked a fastbreak that ended in a Jaquez dunk. Jaquez and Bailey were their primary protagonists on offense, combining for 25 points at center.
UCLA’s full-court press was also effective in the pockets, helping the Bruins take an 11-3 lead in points off turnovers at halftime. It also allowed them to get out on the fastbreak as much as possible to maximize their huge advantage in athleticism. At halftime, all 13 fastbreak points of the game belonged to the Bruins.
After UCLA’s first-round win, Cronin joked that his sister, Kelly, would root for Northwestern because she was an alumna. When Kelly Cronin’s students saw the site at Summit Country Day High in Cincinnati, where she is the principal, they put up pro-Northwestern signs in her office, but just to avoid any confusion, she wore a UCLA T-shirt.
“She would never root against me,” said Mick Cronin.
It would have been a futile effort anyway.