SACRAMENTO, Calif. — If Northwestern’s second-round loss to UCLA feels like deja vu, there’s a good reason for it.
Exactly six years ago, NU was wrapping up its historic tournament run after a comeback against No. 1 Gonzaga fell short.
This time around, their deficit never stretched to 20 and it was a No. 2 seed that closed the curtain on the Wildcats’ second appearance in the round of 32 in a 68-63 loss Saturday.
“I wasn’t surprised by the way our team played in the second half,” coach Chris Collins said, “because that’s what our team has been all year long. We have a fighter spirit. If we get knocked down, we keep fighting.”
Coach Mick Cronin and his Bruins did what was expected. Pac-12 player of the year Jaime Jaquez Jr. powered his team past the Wildcats and into the Sweet 16. He had 24 points and went 11-for-19 from the field. Amari Bailey, who grew up in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for high school, added 14 points.
The Wildcats’ heralded backcourt duo of Boo Buie and Chase Audige combined for five points in the first half. All of them came from Buie, who went 1-for-4 from the field in the half.
Audige found his shot in the second half to power the Wildcats’ comeback bid. He had 10 quick points out of the halftime break to cut UCLA’s lead to four with 13 minutes left. By the 11-minute mark, the score was tied.
“We got in the huddle and said this is what we wanted,” Collins said. “It’s a [late-game] fight.”
But, just like six years ago, his team’s comeback would fall short.
Audige had 16 points and seven assists. Buie added 18 points, and Matthew Nicholson had a career-high 17 and went 7-for-7 from the field and 3-for-4 from the foul line.
In the locker room, there wasn’t a dry eye.
“We knew it was going to be a war,” Audige said. “We started out really cold. I air-balled my first shot and hit the side of the backboard on my second. Credit to UCLA, they made more plays down the stretch.”
The tournament highlights for NU’s program can be summarized on a post-it note, while UCLA has books and movies dedicated to its history.
It has been nearly three decades since the Bruins’ last NCAA title, but they still own a record 11. They came to Sacramento with the energy that the first two rounds of the tournament were merely practice for what’s to come.
The Wildcats waited 77 years to earn their first tournament berth in 2017 and followed up their history-making season by falling back to the bottom of the Big Ten. The remarkable thing was, the 2017 team came back the next season almost completely intact.
Collins acknowledged his failure — on more than one occasion this season — to lead his program through the celebration of making history and into the reality of what it takes to make a habit of it. So what will be different this time around?
The Big Ten was terrible this season, illustrated by the fact that the league’s top team — Purdue — was ousted by Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round. In the coming years, it will only get stronger. UCLA and USC become official members in 2024. So what can Collins do to avoid the same pitfalls?
Buie, Audige and Robbie Beran all have a year of eligibility left. Their future with the program isn’t certain as they all acknowledged that they hadn’t given it that much thought.
“My focus has been completely on being present for this team,” Audige said ahead of the game.
But Audige acknowledged that he and Buie have had some conversations about their future at Northwestern. Whether his senior trio returns or not, Collins has his work cut out to prevent even more history from repeating itself.