UCLA blows lead, suffers another injury but beats Northwestern to return to Sweet 16
The scene inside the UCLA locker room resembled what you might expect after the end of a long trip in late January.
Players sat at their lockers, some looking at phones, others lost in conversation with teammates, no one celebrating Saturday at Golden 1 Center. The only reminder that this was a special time of year was the large NCAA tournament bracket positioned at one end of the room, the Bruins having advanced, allowing designated sticker slapper Russell Stong IV to move UCLA into the next round.
As a reporter asked senior guard David Singleton what the team was going to do to commemorate this latest triumph as part of another deep run into March, Stong raised a triumphant fist into the air from his seat three lockers over.
“Team film session and recovery,” the walk-on interjected.
This is who they are. This is what they do.
For the third time in as many seasons, UCLA has made it to the Sweet 16.
The Bruins get to keep playing because another trend persisted: The final minutes continued to be winning time.
Shaking off a huge Northwestern rally that erased a 13-point deficit in the second half, second-seeded UCLA held off the seventh-seeded Wildcats for an intense, 68-63 victory in the second round.
It was a triumph filled with redemption for the Bruins.
Point guard Tyger Campbell, who missed a late free throw in the Pac-12 tournament championship, went 12 for 12, including six straight in the final three minutes.
Singleton, who went scoreless in that title-game loss to Arizona, buried his only three-pointer of the night to give the Bruins a 62-56 lead with 1:52 left.
Freshman guard Dylan Andrews, who missed a three-pointer at the end of the Arizona game a week ago, made a three-pointer from nearly the same spot on the court with nine minutes left against Northwestern. Andrews also made two free throws with 20 seconds left after the departure of Singleton, who injured an ankle and had to leave the game.
Andrews said assistant coach Rod Palmer told him in the timeout huddle that the Wildcats likely would pick him to shoot the free throws, allowing him to commence his routine once he stepped to the line.
“Just spin the ball, dribble two times and I clear my mind with a deep breath and just me and the basket, that’s all I can see,” Andrews said. “Made both.”
There was widespread relief when Singleton returned to the bench before the end of the game and wiggled his fingers to elicit cheers from the crowd as he walked off the court.
“I just rolled my ankle,” said Singleton, who was diagnosed with a sprain. “I’m fine.”
It took across-the-board contributions for the Bruins to hold off a valiant effort from Northwestern in what qualified as the biggest game in the Big Ten school’s basketball history.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 24 points while passing Bill Walton on UCLA’s all-time scoring list, Amari Bailey added 14 points and Campbell had 12 with seven assists and no turnovers before hurling the ball into the air after the final buzzer.
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. The Bruins joined Houston and Arkansas as the only teams to make it to the last three Sweet 16s, with Gonzaga possibly joining them.
Some special support will accompany the Bruins at their next stop.
“Yay I get to go to Vegas!” injured guard Jaylen Clark tweeted, adding a happy-tears emoji.
An incredibly intense, back-and-forth game was tilting in UCLA’s direction when Singleton, who had missed his first four three-pointers, rose with confidence and finally got one to fall, giving his team the late six-point lead.
“Once you don’t believe in yourself, it’s over,” Singleton said. “So I always have confidence — I think every shot’s going in.”
Northwestern (22-12) never got closer than four points the rest of the way, Boo Buie’s missed layup with 13 seconds left and his team down six effectively ending the Wildcats’ chances. Buie finished with 18 points, Matthew Nicholson added 17 and Chase Audige had all 16 of his in the second half for the Wildcats.
Jaquez now has 1,773 points in four seasons, surpassing Walton’s 1,767 in three seasons.
“I’ll be sure to tell Bill when I see him,” Jaquez cracked of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.
Singleton said the Bruins would celebrate upon returning to Westwood, probably gathering at Stong’s apartment. There will be a team film session alongside epic video game battles.
“We have one TV on the game,” Singleton said, “the other TV we have on Super Smash Bros.”
The partying won’t get too intense, everyone knowing there are more games to play, more victories to secure.
“We’re going to celebrate, but we know the job’s not finished,” Singleton said. “We made it to the Sweet 16, but we go to a school that they don’t hang anything but national championships up.”
Two wins down, four to go.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.