Discover more from The Mighty Bruin
How Sweet it is! UCLA Handles Abilene Christian to Advance to Sweet Sixteen, 67-47
The Bruins will continue their spirited March run into the second weekend.
If you had told UCLA fans in January that following Chris Smith’s injury, the UCLA Bruins would find a way to make a Sweet Sixteen run, they’d probably be skeptical but on board.
If you told those same fans that, following the departure of Jalen Hill, the UCLA Bruins would make the Sweet 16 while winning their games by an average of 12 points, they’d probably start asking if Ashton Kutcher is about to pop out of some bushes to yell that they’d been Punk’d.
But that is the reality we live in. The UCLA Bruins, which had been left for dead as recently as Thursday evening, are moving on to the Sweet Sixteen after a dominating 67-47 victory over #14 Abilene Christian.
It was clear right from the start that the Wildcats would not have anywhere close to the same level of luck that they did against Texas. Abilene Christian had won that game in part by forcing 23 turnovers from the Longhorns, but UCLA looked like a poised, veteran squad early, going almost 10 minutes before registering their first turnover and only registering eight on the day. Credit to the UCLA coaching staff for emphasizing clean offensive play, and especially give credit to UCLA’s primary ball-handlers Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, and David Singleton, who combined for only four turnovers between them.
Like Texas, UCLA also found themselves with a size advantage over the Wildcats, but unlike Texas, UCLA knew how to exploit that. The Bruins bullied the Wildcats on the interior, with Cody Riley bullying his way to 12 points while Jaime Jaquez and Jaylen Clark did damage as well. That interior pressure opened the door for the outside shooters, as Johnny Juzang put in 17 points while Jake Kyman had one of his best games of the season by putting in eight of his own. It was a balanced attack that, while it experienced a lull or two, was more than capable of holding their opponents at bay.
What also helped was the continued resurgence of the UCLA defense. True, Abilene Christian is not a great offensive group, but the Bruins were on a mission in this one to make life miserable for the Wildcat players. Abilene Christian shot 29.8% from the field and were unable to generate the offensive rebounds that fueled their upset over Texas, going from 18 against the Longhorns to just seven in this game. The most impressive aspect is that they did all of this while limiting their own fouling - Tyger Campbell was the only Bruin in serious foul trouble, with the Bruins only committing 15 fouls in the game.
With the win, UCLA advanced to their 35th Sweet Sixteen in school history. Perhaps more importantly, Coach Mick Cronin was able to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for only his second time ever as a coach. A lot has been said about what Cronin could do given the athletes UCLA is routinely able to bring in, and we’re starting to see the early results of that faith.
And now we get to dream. Not on what might have been, but what can be. UCLA making the Sweet Sixteen was something that went from expectation to goal to long-shot over the course of the season, but the Bruins have achieved that milestone all the same, and are playing some of their best basketball of the season in doing so.
Now we get to dream about what could be next.
Johnny Juzang led the Bruins with 17 points. Cody Riley led the team with 12 rebounds, while Jules Bernard had the team lead with five assists. Mahki Morris led the Wildcats with 14 points.
Player of the Game: Cody Riley - Talk about a redemption game. Cody Riley has had an NCAA Tournament to forget up to this point, scoring a grand total of 14 points across the Bruins’ first two contests while constantly dealing with foul trouble. That said, Abilene Christian represented the type of opponent Riley could feast on, and feast he did. Riley had himself a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds while throwing in an assist, steal, and block. It was clear the Wildcats had no real answer to the UCLA big, and his dunk in the second half punctuated the eventual UCLA victory. Better still, Riley stayed out of foul trouble, which allowed him to stay on the floor for a good while. If Riley can maintain this level of play, the Bruins have a great shot to continue their run.
Campbell Figures It Out - Tyger Campbell has certainly had better offensive days, but considering his output over the past few weeks, we’ll take this kind of game in a heartbeat. Campbell was in-control and selective with his shot attempts, making three of six, and did a great job of driving the offense. He also played solid defense, which has become an area of growth in the past few games. With the emergence of Johnny Juzang and the other Flying Js, Campbell doesn’t need to carry the scoring load, but he does need to be at least a neutral presence on the offensive end, and this was a great step in that direction.
Pac-12 Superiority - I have been as critical as anyone when it comes to the general quality of the Pac-12, but imagine my delight at seeing this conference run roughshod over the rest of the tournament. UCLA’s win gave the conference its third Sweet Sixteen team following victories by Oregon and Oregon State, with Colorado and Southern Cal still to play (as of writing, Colorado is losing to Florida State at halftime). The conference has yet to fail at covering the point spread and has looked downright dominant at times. Just goes to show you: always trust Bill Walton.
UCLA now gets to spend another week in Indianapolis and will face the winner of Maryland versus Alabama in the Sweet Sixteen.