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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Ben Bolch

UCLA edges Northwestern to return to Sweet 16; David Singleton sprains ankle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — How Sweet it is.

For the third time in as many seasons, UCLA is advancing to the NCAA tournament’s second week.

The Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 again because another trend persisted Saturday at the Golden 1 Center: The final minutes continued to be winning time.

Shaking off a huge Northwestern rally in which the Wildcats erased a 13-point deficit, second-seeded UCLA held off the seventh-seeded Wildcats for a 68-63 victory in the second round.

The Bruins’ celebration was muted because of another late-season injury.

UCLA senior guard David Singleton, whose only three-pointer of the night had opened a late, six-point lead, sustained a right ankle sprain when he slipped with 20 seconds left. He had to be helped off the court but returned and wiggled his fingers as he walked off to cheers from the crowd. He gave reporters an upbeat assessment of his injury: “I just rolled my ankle. I’m fine.”

Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 24 points, Amari Bailey added 14 and Tyger Campbell had 12 for the Bruins, who pulled away after making all the plays they needed to in the final minutes. Campbell hurled the ball into the air after the final second ticked off the clock.

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.

Boo Buie scored 18 points, Matthew Nicholson had 17 and Chase Audige all 16 of his in the second half for Northwestern (22-12), which had its chances in the biggest game in school history given a lack of basketball tradition.

An incredibly intense, back-and-forth game was tilting in UCLA’s direction as Singleton buried a three to push the Bruins into a 62-56 lead with 1:45 left, after an Adem Bona block had given their team the possession. Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer made two free throws to pull the Wildcats within 62-58.

Northwestern got the ball back after Jaquez airballed a tough baseline jumper that sailed over the rim, but the Wildcats missed two consecutive shots and Campbell grabbed the rebound with 42 seconds left, was fouled and made two free throws to extend the advantage to 64-58, before Buie made a short jumper with 23 seconds left.

The Wildcats fouled Singleton, who was in such pain he threw an arm around trainer Tyler Lesher while walking down on the court. UCLA’s Dylan Andrews made both free throws with 20 seconds left before Buie missed a driving layup, effectively ending the Wildcats’ chances.

A “U-C-L-A!” chant echoed inside the arena after Andrews’ three-pointer from the wing pushed the Bruins into a 51-45 lead and capped a 6-0 surge. Just as it had earlier in the second half, Northwestern rallied, coming within 51-50 on a Buie three-pointer.

It looked like UCLA might be on the way to a blowout when Bailey spun around Buie for a layup to give the Bruins a 41-28 lead early in the second half.

But in a sign of things to come, Jaquez airballed a three-pointer and the Northwestern fans let him hear it. The Wildcats then started finding the rhythm that had eluded them in the first half, going on an 11-2 push to pull within 43-39 and force UCLA coach Mick Cronin to call time out as Singleton and Bona argued on their way to the bench.

Bona threw down a dunk coming out of the timeout but immediately clutched the left shoulder he hurt during the Pac-12 tournament and departed. Northwestern quickly pulled into a 45-45 tie when UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba was called for goaltending on a driving layup by Buie.

UCLA’s smothering defense did its job in helping the Bruins take a 35-25 halftime lead, holding Northwestern’s veteran backcourt of Buie and Audige to five points on a combined one-for-eight shooting. Bailey and Andrews were particularly suffocating in their efforts on Buie, denying him driving lanes while staying within bad-breath distance.

The Bruins had considerably less success stopping Nicholson, who made all five shots on the way to 10 points after scoring on a variety of lobs and pick-and-roll plays. All three UCLA big men were equally ineffective in preventing those easy baskets.

In his first appearance since walking gingerly off the court during the Pac-12 tournament, Bona struggled in the early going except for a dunk off a nice pass from Bailey. Bona was called for two fouls in a 24-second span and came out, playing only four minutes in the first half.

Nwuba continued his surprising stint as the Bruins’ best big man, blocking a shot that triggered a fastbreak ending in a Jaquez dunk. Jaquez and Bailey were their primary protagonists on offense, combining for 25 points by the midpoint.

UCLA’s full-court press also was effective in pockets, helping the Bruins take an 11-3 lead on points off turnovers by halftime. It also allowed them to get out on the fastbreak as much as possible to maximize their huge advantage in athleticism. At halftime, all 13 of the game’s fastbreak points belonged to the Bruins.

After UCLA’s first-round victory, Cronin joked that his sister, Kelly, would be rooting for Northwestern because she was an alumna. Seeing the spot, Kelly Cronin’s students at Summit Country Day High in Cincinnati, where she’s the principal, posted pro-Northwestern signs in her office, but just to avoid any confusion she wore a UCLA T-shirt.

“She would never root against me,” Mick Cronin said.

It would have been a futile effort anyway.

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