Battle-tested Bruins survive upset bid from Akron to advance to second round of NCAA Tournament
It wasn’t pretty—like, at all—but the name of the game in March is survive and advance.
UCLA survived a first-round matchup with 13-seed Akron Thursday night. It’ll advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament because of it. The Bruins will need to be better than they were to stay longer, but maybe this was simply a game UCLA needed to escape.
And escape they did. The fourth-seeded Bruins closed on a 15-4 run to beat the Zips 57-53.
They trailed for a little over 27 minutes total against the Zips. With 6:02 to play, they were down 49-42. A personal 8-0 run from Tyger Campbell, punctuated by a near-logo triple from straight away, proved to be the difference. The Bruin guard finished with 16 points to pace the team.
“I told (Akron’s head coach) after the game they were probably the most well-coached, best defensive team we’ve played all year,” Mick Cronin said. “All their guys were so tough. Their smallest guys on our post guys and we couldn’t get the ball inside. … We were well aware of how hard this game was going to be. We’ve got a veteran team. It wasn’t a battle because we weren’t ready.”
Quite the opposite. Akron was ready for UCLA. Credit the Zips.
Early on, the Bruins were sped up by Akron’s activity. The Zips looked to play at almost a frenetic pace, and UCLA, which is significantly more comfortable slowing things down, matched styles and tried to press the issue in transition.
Campbell threw a few uncharacteristic passes trying to thread the needle on the break. The Bruins had four turnovers in the first 10 minutes after a season in which they averaged nine a game. When the offense started to settle into a groove, the defense slipped.
Akron switched every ball screen early. Despite a size advantage for UCLA, Akron’s sheer intensity level made UCLA uncomfortable. When Cronin looked to just put Campbell in the middle of the floor and trigger pick-and-rolls to try and unclog the lane, Akron started trapping Campbell as he came off.
“They took so many things away from us,” Cronin said. “We were searching. Tyger and I were searching together trying to figure some things out.”
In the second half, Akron was able to get guard Xavier Castaneda rolling. He had 12 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes as the Bruins struggled to contain him off the dribble.
When big man Cody Riley was on the floor for UCLA, Akron hunted him in pick-and-roll, bringing Castaneda off pairs of screens from the wing to try and force a switch with Riley and get them matched up at the top of the key. Castaneda punished UCLA for going under on a screen late and got inside to do some damage on a few other possessions.
But UCLA’s outlook seemed to change when Cronin inserted freshman wing Peyton Watson into the game and went small. Neither Myles Johnson nor Riley was effective, and Watson only saw the floor for six minutes, but they were huge in terms of impact.
He knocked down a triple with 12:40 to play that gave the Bruins a one-point lead and what seemed at the time like a shot in the arm.
“Peyton had some great minutes, really impactful minutes,” Cronin said. “He infused energy into our team, which we needed.”
UCLA was dreadful shooting the ball in the first half. After averaging over 30 a game just in the painted area alone at the Pac-12 Tournament, the Bruins put up only six paint points in the first 20 minutes Thursday night. Too many jumpshots. Credit Akron, who, again, worked incredibly hard to pack the paint.
The Bruins hit just 32% in the first half and missed on nine of 12 3-pointers.
Add in the turnovers and the fact they got outworked in the rebounding department and you can probably guess the decibel level of the locker room at the intermission.
Cronin felt the key to turning things around in the second half was their energy on the glass and their more-composed play with the ball. UCLA had only two turnovers in the final 20 minutes. Seven offensive rebounds led to eight second-chance points. Stylistically, this night reminded Cronin of his Big East days.
“You’re gonna win a rock fight, you’ve gotta put your hard hat on,” Cronin said. “You’ve gotta take care of the ball and get some extra possessions.”
And, he felt, if they could do that, eventually shots would fall.
Which they did.
None bigger than a corner 3 with 5:16 to play that took a seven-point Akron lead down to four and ignited the Bruins’ closing run.
“The biggest shot of the game to me was Jules’ 3 in the corner,” Cronin said. “We were struggling. That was a big-time shot. There was no coaching involved in that. That was just gym time and this guy who has been doing big things for us for three years since I’ve been here. That was a big-time shot.”
In that way, Campbell’s logo triple wasn’t much different.
That one put the Bruins up four with less than 90 seconds to play.
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2022
Cronin said Campbell spent 10 minutes after practice Wednesday at that exact spot on the floor working on that exact shot.
Campbell didn’t celebrate after he hit it in-game.
Job wasn’t finished.
“I didn’t really get excited until I got back to the locker room,” Campbell said.
It ain’t enough to just win once at this tournament.
These Bruins went to the Final Four last season. They know this is a grind. And they likely know they’ll have to play better against 5-seed Saint Mary’s on Saturday (4:10 p.m. PT on TBS) to keep it going. But big-time teams make big-time plays in big-time moments. UCLA did that Thursday night.
“We just stuck it out,” Bernard said, “and I feel like that’s the mark of a good team—a great team. When you’re battled (against) and you face a challenge and you come out on top.”