UCLA won 12 consecutive games before losing to Arizona in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament in a setback that was more frustrating than worrisome.
The scowling Bruins (30-5) bounced back with a vengeance Thursday and are out to continue the momentum against seventh-seeded Northwestern (22-11) on Saturday in the second round of NCAA Tournament West Region play at Sacramento, Calif.
Second-seeded UCLA held nothing back in a convincing 86-53 victory over 15th-seed UNC Asheville on Thursday. The Bruins scored the first 14 points and steamrolled the Bulldogs the rest of the way.
It was exactly the type of performance coach Mick Cronin envisioned.
“When we lost Saturday, I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was going to help us,” Cronin said afterward. “There’s no question it was going to help us. I know these guys.”
The strong effort came despite defensive standout Jaylen Clark (Achilles) lost for the season and big man Adem Bona (shoulder) missing his second straight game. Bona might return against the Wildcats.
The Bruins powered through the hardships right from the outset of Thursday’s romp.
“Our guys really approached the game with a professional attitude, which is something that we try to focus on,” Cronin said. “It’s not about our opponent, it’s about us. We got to make sure we maintain the same level of intensity and preparation for our next game.”
UCLA now takes aim at reaching the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. If the Bruins beat Northwestern, it will mark the first time the program has accomplished that since reaching the Final Four in three consecutive tournaments from 2006-08.
Forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. has been a key player on each of the last three Bruins teams, including the surprise run to the Final Four in 2021 in Cronin’s second season.
“Just enjoy it,” Jaquez said of his approach. “It goes by fast, so enjoy every moment, play your heart out.”
Northwestern is 2-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament games after outclassing 10th-seeded Boise State 75-67 on Thursday.
The Wildcats advanced to the second round in 2017 in their maiden NCAA voyage before losing to Gonzaga. Northwestern faces another tough foe in the Bruins but coach Chris Collins said the name of the opponent doesn’t mean much in March.
“When there’s only 32 teams left, everybody’s really good,” Collins said. “You got to really focus. You got to be at our best. That’s what we’re going to hope to be on Saturday.”
Senior guard Boo Buie and Chase Audige fueled the Wildcats’ wire-to-wire victory over the Broncos. Buie recorded 22 points, five rebounds and five assists and Audige added 20 points, six rebounds and four steals.
Buie points to Collins as the reason for his success after being an unwanted high school player at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine.
“For me, I probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Coach,” Buie said. “I was super under-recruited. He gave me my first and only high major scholarship. It was my commitment since Day One to help him out and just do anything I could.
“He put the ball in my hands since a freshman. He just believed in me. Each year I’ve gotten better, he’s helped me get better.”
Collins has witnessed the improvement over the years.
“It’s a journey of four years,” Collins said of Buie. “He’s been a starter. We’ve gone through some ups, some downs, and now he’s a senior and he’s really leading our team and making big plays and that’s what you need when you get to March.”
UCLA has won four of the five meetings but the teams have met just once since 1969. The Bruins beat the Wildcats 95-79 on Nov. 29, 2013 in the Las Vegas Invitational title game.
–Field Level Media