UCLA downs Abilene Christian for unlikely Sweet 16 trip

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The little guys and have-nots aren’t the only unlikely stories in this NCAA Tournament that’s become defined by upsets.

Sometimes, the blue bloods can get their elbows dirty and surprise, too.

Sometimes, the haves can become feel-good stories in March Madness.

Yes, even a UCLA program with a preposterous postseason pedigree that includes 50 NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 national titles, 18 trips to the Final Four and 34 Sweet 16s.

A week ago, UCLA, one of the last teams to get into the NCAAs, was playing in the “First Four’’ to simply earn a place into the final 64’s big bracket.

After Monday night’s 67-47 win over No. 14-seed Abilene Christian in the second round of the East Region in Indianapolis, UCLA is going to the Sweet 16, the school’s 35th trip there and perhaps its most unlikely of all.

The Bruins became only the fifth team to advance from the “First Four’’ to the Sweet 16.

For 20-9 UCLA, its next opponent will be the winner of Monday’s late game between Maryland and Alabama for a chance to get to the Elite 8.

It has, of course, been a weird year for everyone, with COVID-19 protocols and restrictions. For UCLA basketball, it’s been particularly strange.

Consider the fact the Bruins lost their last three games of the regular season and were bounced from the Pac-12 Tournament in the first round.

Including the “First Four’’ win over Michigan State, UCLA has now won three games in five nights.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin said team got back at 3 a.m. after its Thursday win over Michigan State and 3 a.m. after its first-round Saturday win over BYU.

“Our guys have been through a lot the last couple weeks and it’s brought them together,’’ Cronin said.

The “First Four’’ usually is occupied by lesser-known, small-school teams like Appalachian State, Norfolk State and Texas Southern. Not UCLA and Michigan State, which have combined for 28 Final Four appearances between them.

UCLA overcame an 11-point deficit against Michigan State to win 86-80 and get into the 64. Then two days later, as a No. 11 seed, the Bruins beat No. 5 seeded BYU rather convincingly, 73-62, in the first round.

That got them to Monday night against an Abilene Christian team that was still riding high from upsetting No. 3 Texas in the first round.

To say Monday’s game was a dangerous one for UCLA, which has spent the better part of the past decade disappointing its fan base that still dreams of attaining the impossibly high standards John Wooden set all those years ago.

But UCLA didn’t flinch against Abilene Christian.

“Arrogance will get you beat,’’ Cronin warned his players before the game.

The players took heed to their coach’s advice.

They turned a 12-8 deficit in the first half into a 26-12 lead with an 18-0 run that turned the game upside down for upstart Abilene Christian, which would never recover. UCLA led 31-21 at the half, scored the first eight points of the second half and cruised to the Sweet 16 from there.

Abilene Christian is known for its chaotic defense, one of the best teams in the nation at forcing turnovers at 21 per game. UCLA turned the ball over only eight times Monday night.

“Obviously, they had our attention,’’ Cronin said. “The key to this game was we did not take them lightly. Our guys were awesome. For us to have only eight turnovers was a tremendous job by our guys.’’

UCLA forward Cody Riley said this five-night run “shows the resilience of the group, our togetherness, how we never broke down or separated.’’

A key for UCLA was realizing that those four games it lost at the end of the season came against four teams — Colorado, Oregon, USC and Oregon State — that not only made the NCAA Tournament but were all still alive in it as of the end of the Bruins’ win Monday night.

“Even though that stretch where we lost those four games was pretty rough, it motivated us to come out here and prove that we’re a lot better team than that,’’ Riley said. “We’re not finished.’’

Music to Cronin’s ears.

“My message to them, since the Michigan State game was: ‘I didn’t come to Westwood [California] to win a game or two. Remember who you play for,’ ’’ Cronin said. “I’m trying to put confidence in them — especially the way they ended the season. I came to Westwood for a reason. We’ve got games to win.’’

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