Jaime Jaquez helps UCLA return to Sweet 16 with NCAA Tournament win over Northwestern

The UCLA Bruins bounded into Golden 1 Center this week as a grumpy lot, irked that they had lost a Pac-12 tournament championship game they thought was theirs.

That setback to Arizona cost the most storied program in college basketball a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which UCLA coaches and players now say was a good thing. Good teams tend to play differently with the bruise of a painful defeat.

Seeded second in the West Region, UCLA left Sacramento as the most impressive team in this eight-team sub-regional, upping its defensive pressure to beat No. 7 Northwestern 68-63 on Saturday night in front of 16,806 to return to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time.

The Bruins (31-5) now stand two victories shy of their 20th Final Four. This is their 52nd NCAA Tournament, and their 11 championships are the most of any NCAA member. They joke in Los Angeles that UCLA has long since run out of room to hang banners in the Pauley Pavilion.

With skill, talent and a sense that this is exactly what they’re supposed to do, the Bruins to a man and to a coach accomplished exactly what they were supposed to do, and they ran their record to 31-1 in tournament games played in California, including a 2-0 showing at Golden 1 in 2017.

Senior guard, leader and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaime Jaquez had 24 points, making 11 of 19 field goals. Amari Bailey had 14. Tyger Campbell 12.

The Bruins surrendered 14 offensive rebounds to the relentless Wildcats (22-12), who were in just their second-ever NCAA Tournament. But UCLA limited Northwestern to 1 of 12 shooting down the stretch to advance to the West Region semifinals on Thursday night against the winner of Sunday’s Gonzaga-TCU contest.

The only downer for the Bruins and a large contingent of fans that belted out “U-C-L-A” was when senior guard David Singleton went down with a rolled ankle in the closing moments. The heart and soul of the team, Singleton scored five points, including a late 3, but his impact is much greater than buckets.

UCLA has been hampered by injuries, including losing defensive ace Jaylen Clark for the postseason with a foot injury. Freshman 6-foot-10 defensive stalwart Aden Bona has labored through a shoulder injury that is tender to the touch. He did not play in Thursday’s win over UNC Asheville, but he gutted through this one with six points and two blocked shots, grimacing every time he bumped into someone, which was often.

“We’re surprised when Dave misses because we see him every day in practice,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who had rushed to Singleton’s aid when he went down. “Looks like he didn’t break his ankle, which I was worried that he did. I was having flashbacks to when I had a full head of hair in the spring of 2000, running out there (to see) Kenyon Martin (when I coached at Cincinnati). It’s been crazy for us here lately (with injuries).”

Cronin said having a senior anchor in Jaquez and a freshman star in Bailey is what helps bind these Bruins, whose starting lineup includes Campbell, a senior guard.

“The college experience,” Cronin said of the NCAA Tournament, adding, “this guy didn’t have to go to college (pointing to Bailey). He had seven-figure offers (overseas) to skip college. Jaime could have left and been in the NBA this year. But they value the college experience, which is why we’re so good.”

Senior guards Chase Audige and Boo Buie had 16 and 18 points, respectively, for Northwestern, which reached its first NCAA Tournament in 2017 and then endured five successive losing seasons before this breakout campaign.