Hernandez: Don’t worry about UCLA. Flexibility is part of the Bruins’ approach to March Madness

UCLA’s Kenneth Nopa grabbed a rebound off Northwestern’s Brooks Barnizer during the second half of the Bruins’ 68-63 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

It would be their instinct to point to Saturday night as a clue as to why UCLA never won a national championship.

The quieter Heads would offer a run against the Northwest as a reason for the Bruins’ will. Ignore the narrow margin of victory. Mick Cronin’s team is on its way.

The Bruins were unable to score in the second half. They were upset by the Wildcats’ 7-foot center, Matthew Nicholson. There were stretches where they couldn’t stop Chase Audige’s guard.

Somehow, they never let go. Somehow, they won.

Their 68-63 victory over Northwestern was more about their determination than their ability to shoot, and more about their comfort in doing whatever was necessary to win than their dominance in any given statistical category.

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

Situations also changed in Kansas earlier in the day. Things changed at Purdue the day before. Kansas and Purdue were not spared. UC 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 other two being Arkansas and Houston. And Gonzaga could be fourth with a win over Texas Christian on Sunday.

This is no accident.

In the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins scrapped the idea that the loss of the best defensive player would eventually catch up with them.

The Bruins have proven that they are just as fierce without Jaylen Clark as they were with him. They intercepted every shot and threw themselves at every loose 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 kronen. Players have adopted Cronin’s behaviour. They play with power to the point of anger. They don’t smile.

UCLA's David Singleton celebrates after making a three-pointer against Northwestern in the second half on Saturday.

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

Mental produced a 35-25 halftime lead. The Bruins only committed one turnover less than the Wildcats, but the difference was in what they did to their opponents’ mistakes. Over the first 20 minutes, the Bruins had a 13-0 advantage in fastbreak points and an 11-3 advantage in points scored on turnovers.

Boo Buie, who entered the game as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, only had five points in the first half. Audige, the second best scorer, had none.

UCLA’s focus on the perimeter created openings for Nicholson, who finished with 17 points.

Northwestern also had a noticeable advantage on the glass, as the Wildcats finished the game with 34 rebounds to the Bruins’ 28. The Wildcats attempted 59 field goals, 15 more than the Bruins.

“If we bounce the ball, we control the whole game,” Cronin said.

Instead, the Bruins found themselves tied at 45-45 with 11:26 remaining.

Jaime Jacques Jr. The team finished with 24 points, 14 of which came in the first half. Amari Bailey scored 14 points.

They help make up for a slow offensive night from Tyger Campbell, who missed all seven of his field goal attempts. But Campbell contributed whatever he could, sinking all twelve of his free throws.

Striker Adam Bona has been limited in his return from a shoulder injury. But like Campbell, he did what he could. With the Bruins holding on to a 59-56 lead and 2:23 left in the game, Bona missed a pair of free throws. However, on the ensuing Wildcats possession, Bona blocked a layup by Audige. David Singleton assisted on three and the Bruins were suddenly back at six.

Cronin also adapted, making changes to slow down Odig, who scored 16 points in the second half.

“We responded with a little snare in their battles and rolls that slowed their offense,” said Cronin.

Cronin will have to make more adjustments in future rounds. He’ll have to figure out how to deal with volume. He’ll have to get the ball into Billy’s hand more. But he already took care of the most important part. He really taught his players how to win.

This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.

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