‘We play to win’: UCLA, Missouri, Northwestern, Princeton seek Sweet 16 bids in Sacramento

Eight NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams arrived in Sacramento early this week with high hopes of injecting some March Madness into what’s left of their seasons. Four of them remain.

By Saturday night, only two will be left from the Sacramento sub-regional at Golden 1 Center, capping first- and second-round games in what has already been a memorable stop.

No. 15-seeded Princeton is still standing because No. 2 Arizona no longer is. The Tigers staged another epic upset, stunning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament champions 59-55 on Thursday.

At 3:10 p.m. Saturday at Golden 1 Center, Princeton will take on Tigers of a different stripe in the Missouri Tigers, who topped Utah State 76-65 in another first-round game. In the 5:40 p.m. game, No. 2 UCLA readies for No. 7 Northwestern, which is in just its second NCAA Tournament in the 85-year history of the event.

Coming off five consecutive losing seasons since their last March Madness entry, the Wildcats beat Boise State 75-67 to reach the second round. UCLA is in the tournament for the 52nd time with a team poised for a run at its 20th Final Four and second in three seasons. While Missouri, Northwestern and Princeton are generally hopeful of March Madness success as programs not steeped with Final Four banners, UCLA has for decades been programmed to excel at this time of year.

The Bruins looked the part of a motivated group after losing a tight Pac-12 tournament title game to Arizona, costing them a No. 1 seed.

”We don’t take losing well at UCLA,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said. “We spell fun W-I-N.”

He added: “These guys are trained. We don’t take losing lightly. We play to win at UCLA. It’s not OK to lose.”

UCLA Bruins head coach Mick Cronin, left, shouts to his players as UNC Asheville Bulldogs head coach Mike Morrell claps at right during the first half of the NCAA Tournament game at Golden 1 Center on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Sacramento. UCLA beat UNC Asheville, 86-53.
UCLA Bruins head coach Mick Cronin, left, shouts to his players as UNC Asheville Bulldogs head coach Mike Morrell claps at right during the first half of the NCAA Tournament game at Golden 1 Center on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Sacramento. UCLA beat UNC Asheville, 86-53.

Princeton power

Northwestern coach Chris Collins said this is the time of season for crash-course preparation. If he didn’t know a whole lot about UCLA entering Friday, that changed in a hurry.

“That’s what we pay those assistant coaches the big bucks for,” he said with a laugh after Thursday’s win. “They better not be eating popcorn and concessions over there (in Golden 1, watching other games). They better be over there figuring out what (UCLA does).

“When there’s 32 teams left, everybody’s really good. You got to really focus. Got to be at our best. That’s what we’re going to hope to be on Saturday.”

On Friday at Golden 1, athletes spoke to the media about the next games. One topic was how Princeton outrebounded Arizona, one of the biggest teams in all of college basketball. Missouri players assured there would be no lack of effort against Princeton.

“I think Princeton outworked Arizona,” said burly 6-foot-6 Missouri forward Noah Carter. “They really fought hard, fought for their life. Not saying that Arizona disrespected them, but they might have under-looked them a little bit. We’re going to work our hardest. We’re not going to let anyone outwork us.”

Princeton is the clear underdog and was a fan favorite at Golden 1, judging by the roars of approval from so many as the Tigers held the Wildcats scoreless for almost the final five minutes of the game.

“It’s March Madness, the teams that are here deserve to be here,” Missouri guard Nick Honor said. “Everybody loves a good underdog story. They’re a great team. It will be a good game.”

Princeton forward Zach Martini said he and teammates were stunned at the response of fans everywhere from their Arizona effort.

“It’s crazy how many people are watching — 15,000 here, national TV,” he said. “Not a bigger stage than this. How many people pay attention, how many people care that we won a basketball game, it’s like, wow.”

Media Madness

The March Madness experience exhilarates those deeply invested: players, coaches, fans.

What about the media?

For Dana Jacobson, March Madness is a gem assignment, including action at Golden 1 Center. A one-time sportscaster for ABC 10 in Sacramento, Jacobson is tasked with coming up with a timely question and quick-hit insight for CBS Sports as a sideline reporter, where she could be spotted on press row jotting down notes, checking her phone, her laptop, and then bolting from here to there.

“It’s a great assignment, so fun,” Jacobson told The Bee. “It’s amazing because of the energy the players bring, because of the chaos, because you have no idea what’s going to happen, and at first, you have no idea where you’re going until the brackets are released. And you have to appreciate it. This is so fun, and these are moments that people will talk about forever.”

Jacobson said she regularly has a mound of nuggets — insights on players and coaches — but only a fraction of it gets on the air. On Thursday for opening-round games, Jacobson hustled around Golden 1, radiant with her smile and green leather coat. Any notion that she’s relaxing and soaking in games with a close-up view of the action is a stretch, but she hears it all.

“I don’t kick back,” Jacobson said with a laugh. “I’m running between the benches, and it’s awesome.”

Also awesome: the sparkling venue that is Golden 1. Jacobson covered her share of Kings games at Arco Arena, which went from splashy new in 1988 to an archaic building by the mid 2000s, closing in 2016.

“Arco could fit inside Golden 1,” Jacobson said.

Saturday’s second-round games

No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 15 Princeton, 3:10 p.m. (TNT)

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 7 Northwestern, 5:40 p.m. (TNT)