UCLA hung on in a tight game against the Northwestern Wildcats, 68-63 on Saturday night in Sacramento. This game was a tale of two halves, as UCLA came out of the gate strong, but struggled to put the Wildcats away in the second half. Northwestern would hit the first basket of the game, a three, and that would be the only time they led the entire game. So while UCLA controlled the game, they definitely struggled at a number of points. 

The first half was a fast-paced, blurred frenzy, that is exactly what makes UCLA great. They played tight defense, got out on the break, and they moved the ball around to different scorers. Undoubtedly Jaime Jacquez is the most impressive Bruin this season, and quickly turning into one of my favorite players in college basketball. He plays the game the right way and doesn’t make mistakes. Without demanding the ball, and by virtue of always being in the best positions, he quietly and consistently finds a way to score the basketball. He’s the type of player that is impossible to game-plan against. Cutting, rebounding and putbacks, off-ball movement, he finds himself with opportunities for easy layups and wide-open threes constantly. 

My favorite part of the first half, though, was the play of Amari Bailey. But again, a tale of two halves. In the first half, Bailey was out in transition, getting guys the ball, making jumpers, and creating havoc for the Northwestern defense by putting pressure on the rim. I said this after the last game, but the Bruins are going to go as far as Bailey takes them. When he has the ball in his hands, they’re an entirely different team. He is a willing and more than capable passer, and his natural scoring ability is something this team just does not have anywhere else on the squad. 

This is especially witnessed by the play of Tyger Campbell, who went 0-7 from the field. While Campbell is without a doubt one of the leaders of this team, his game is eerily reminiscent of Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics. He has a high IQ, plays defense tough, and is always putting his teammates in positions to score. But 0-7 from the field is a massive issue. Tyger has never been known for his scoring output, but if you’re going to shoot the ball even seven times a game, you need to start putting yourself in positions where you know you’re getting good shots. At this point in the season, one has to wonder why the Bruins don’t let Amari run the offense. Because in the second half, he was nowhere to be found. And not coincidentally, this is where the Bruins let the Wildcats back in the game. 

In truth, the Bruins were incredibly lucky to win this game because the Wildcats could not buy a basket. They shot an absolutely miserable 37% from the field and an even worse 27% from the three-point line. The reason they were able to stay in this game was that they absolutely embarrassed UCLA on the offensive glass with a 14-3 advantage. That is an unconscionable lack of effort in the rebounding department, and I’m certain Coach Cronin is about to be fired up about this. The rebounding issue was compounded by Matthew Nicholson running roughshod in the paint against the Bruins. A kid who averages a meager 4.3 points a game for his career, went 7-7, with 14 points and 7 rebounds. That cannot be allowed to happen in games of this magnitude. This is absolutely the injury bug rearing its head for the Bruins, as the injured Jaylen Clark would have helped I’m sure. Bona was clearly still rusty coming back from injury, and hurt himself later in the game as well. Nwuba not having the same impact from the last game was also big, as the Bruins tend to play a lot of small-ball lineups that somehow find Jacquez as the biggest guy on the court for them. That’s only a formula that works if you can shoot the three-point shot like the Warriors can. 

What let the Wildcats down the most this game was Chase Audige. He was a guy who showed last game that he could get a bucket for this team when they needed him. He didn’t even attempt a field goal in the first half, but for an eight-minute period in the second half, he couldn’t miss. He willed them back in the game, before promptly going missing the last seven minutes of action. 

At one point, UCLA’s David Singleton went down and looked to have seriously injured his leg or ankle. Almost everyone was holding their breath and fearing the worst. Luckily he is going to walk away from that with just a sprained ankle, and presumably will be back for their next game. A possible blow like Singleton could be absolute death for the Bruins as he without question their best shooter. 

The Bruins face off against Gonzaga in the sweet 16 and are going to look to iron out some of their issues before that game. While the Zags tend to struggle in the tournament because they play in one of the weaker conferences, they’re going to be the biggest challenge the Bruins have faced so far. The UCLA defense which struggled in the paint is going to have to make sure they attack Drew Timme relentlessly. While the double teams on the shooter didn’t work out against the Wildcats, because they kept finding Nicholson inside, this shouldn’t be an issue hopefully as the Zags work the opposite way the Wildcats do. Gonzaga struggled against a tough TCU team, and UCLA will probably still remember the sting of the Jalen Suggs half-court hail mary that defeated them in a previous NCAA Tourney matchup against Gonzaga. I expect UCLA to come out fired up and should be able to hold off the Zags. If UCLA can keep winning games – even ugly – they might be a favorite to win the title. 

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