UCLA defeats Northwestern to return to the Sweet Sixteen

The UCLA Bruins men's basketball team, behind 24 points from forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., held on to defeat the Northwestern Wildcats, 68-63, to clinch a berth in the West Region Semi-finals of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The Bruins will meet the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday, March 23rd in Las Vegas. This is the third consecutive appearance for the Bruins in the Sweet 16 and improves their overall record for the season to 31-5.

The Bruins easily defeated their first-round opponent, UNC Asheville, 86-53. The second-round match with Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference proved to be much tougher, as expected. The Bruins never trailed against UNC Asheville, jumping out to a 14-0 lead, and never looking back. Against Northwestern, the Bruins trailed in the first minute of the game and never trailed after that. Northwestern did tie the score at 45-45 in the second half with 11:26 remaining in the game.

Jaquez hit a jump shot to give the Bruins a 47-45 lead and the Bruins never lost the lead after that. But they could not shake the Wildcats. Northwestern hung in there until the very end, with the Bruins lead ranging from 1 to 6 points in the final ten minutes of the game. UCLA went 8 for 8 from the free throw line in the final three minutes and got big three-point field goals from guards David Singleton and Dylan Andrews in the final ten minutes of the game.

The Bruins were at their best in this game when they were running. They finished with a 22-3 advantage over the Wildcats in fastbreak points. UCLA head coach Mick Cronin felt that the they needed to find a way to get some easy baskets in the game, primarily due to the tough Northwestern halfcourt defense.

"I would tell you our transition early is what got us the lead," Cronin said. "I thought that was big because they are such a good halfcourt defensive team. It's not like we had a lot of practice to get ready for that. I was able to talk to the guys about when we get a stop, we're flying down for layups because we don't want to get into a game in the 50's."

That strategy proved to be a key to victory. The Bruins had a 14-point lead in the first half, a ten point lead at halftime and a 13 point lead early in the second half. Northwestern spent the evening chasing UCLA and those easy fast break baskets in the first half really helped. Eventually, Northwestern's tough half-court defense and 14-3 edge in offensive rebounding helped close the gap.

In the end, the scoring trio of Jaquez, point guard Tyger Campbell and freshman star Amari Bailey were too much for the Wildcats. The three players combined for 50 of the Bruins 68 points. Bailey has stepped up offensively and defensively since the Bruins lost Jaylen Clark, and they will need him against Gonzaga. Clark was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team All-Conference pick after averaging 13 points per game.

Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring, averaging 87.3 points per game. The Bruins are 6th in the nation in points allowed per game at 60.2 points per game and top five in defensive efficiency rankings. Gonzaga is top five in offensive efficiency rankings. Gonzaga runs a free-flowing offense that does not call set plays. They run a ball-screen offense with motion and spacing. Very similar to the Arizona Wildcats offense, with even better talent.

The Bruins need to control the pace and make this a physical halfcourt battle. They need to hold their own on the boards. Center Adem Bona and his backup, Ken Nwuba, both need to control the defensive boards and block shots. If Gonzaga is playing their game, they will be tough to beat. The game will be televised on CBS and is scheduled to start at 6:45 p.m. locally. The winner will meet the winner of the Arkansas-Connecticut matchup on Saturday in the Elite 8 in Las Vegas.


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