Northwestern vs. UCLA: Keys to the game

By Maria Heim

Northwestern survives and advances. After a rocky road to victory against Boise State on Thursday, the Wildcats will face the two-seeded UCLA Bruins on Saturday in Sacramento, California. The Bruins overwhelmed the UNC Asheville Bulldogs 86-53 Thursday night.

Appearing in the NCAA tournament for just the second time, Northwestern has never gone further than the second round. With hopes of advancing, here is what Northwestern should hone in on: 

1.  Pace of play 

Northwestern needs to identify its sweet spot for speed. Against Boise State, Northwestern moved quickly in comparison to the Broncos’ slower approach. In the first half, freshman Nick Martinelli had a key steal, ran the length of the court, and made a layup to put the ‘Cats ahead 17-8. Northwestern also finished with 75 points – the most the ‘Cats have scored in a game since mid-February against Iowa. 

However, Northwestern must look to slow the pace on offense against UCLA. The Bruin’s strength stems from their veteran backcourt being able to command their side of the ball. As a more physical team, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell bring offensive firepower in place of injured guard Jaylen Clark. For the Wildcats, they must shift their strategy to limiting possessions instead of accumulating their own. 

2. Steal city 

Chase Audige was his usual self on defense in the first round. The Naismith Award finalist collected four steals on Thursday. Continuing to force turnovers will keep the Bruins on their toes and keep the ball rolling. 

Feeding the steals to offensive powerhouses like Audige will be a determinant of Northwestern’s momentum. 

3. Basket precision

Ty Berry put his dancing shoes on before Thursday’s game. He capitalized on open looks early in the game – a rarity for the junior guard who is shooting just under 35% from the field this season. Berry had only knocked down four threes over the ‘Cats last five games, but poured in three buckets from beyond the arc against the Broncos. 

Boo Buie also continued to break barriers in round one. He became the second Wildcat ever with 20 or more points in an NCAA tournament game, joining Bryant McIntosh, who had 25 points against Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2016-2017 NCAA tournament. In addition to his 22 points, Buie also had five assists, five rebounds and only committed one turnover.

“It’s a journey of four years,” head coach Chris Collins said of Buie’s performance. “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 .” 

4. Disciplined defense 

While defense has been the ‘Cats calling card throughout the season, it has been less reliable in recent games. Collins described this in a halftime interview against Boise State. 

“I like how we are playing,” said Chris Collins. “I did think we gave them some free baskets.” 

The ‘Cats also struggled on the glass, getting out-rebounded 41-33. Northwestern’s big men will need to be more aggressive on the boards against the Bruins, who are second in the Pac-12 in rebounds per game this year. 

Despite some lapses, the ‘Cats locked in when it mattered most against Boise State. When Northwestern’s guards are all in on the defensive end, it usually produces good results. And in the later stages of Thursday’s game, the Broncos saw a body everywhere they went on the court. 

While Northwestern runs out on the court against UCLA as the underdog, March Madness has been seasoned with many upsets thus far. Northwestern can continue this streak tonight against one of the nation’s top teams. 

Tune in to Brea Lassek and Andrew Neville with the call at 7:40 p.m. CST.

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