March Madness – (11) UCLA vs. (2) Gonzaga

(11) UCLA Bruins vs. (2) Gonzaga Bulldogs (-8.5, 145.5 o/u)

It’s been a long five years for the No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs (34-2, 17-1 WCC). For the last half-decade, the Zags have bowed out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The team bumped the trend on Sunday, though, with convincing 87-68 win over No. 7 Iowa. Tomorrow, Gonzaga faces No. 11 UCLA (22-13, 11-7 Pac-12), a team they already beat on the road this year, for a shot at the Elite Eight.

Gonzaga’s survival into the second week was particularly cathartic for senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who were the starting backcourt for the last three early tournament exits.

“There’s no greater feeling than this, because I haven’t been able to experience it, and most of the guys in the locker room haven’t,” said Pangos. “So for us to be able to get past this is definitely a great feeling. But it’s not like we were stressing over what people were talking about. We just wanted to do it selfishly for ourselves and our fan base.”

Bell Jr. added, “It is kind of a weight off because a lot of people doubted us to even get to the 16 this year and we have a great team.”

Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer was huge for the Zags in the win over the Hawkeyes. The 6’11” junior scored 24 points on 9/11 shooting; freshman Domantas Sabonis chipped in nicely off the bench with 18 points, and Pangos added 16 (including four three-pointers).

“When you get on a roll and my teammates do such a good job of finding me, you just get more and more confident,” said Wiltjer, who scored 13 in the first. “That’s what I was doing in the first half.”

Up next for the Bulldogs are the No. 11 UCLA Bruins, who some doubted were worthy of a tournament berth.

But all the criticism seems to have only motivated the Bruins, who edged out No. 6 SMU (60-59) in the Round of 64 (covering as 3.5-point dogs) before powering past No. 14 UAB on the weekend (92-75), for a second straight ATS win.

The Bruins players feel their strong play has justified their presence in the field.

“The selection committee thought we were good enough to play in this tournament, and I think we proved it,” said Tony Parker, who scored a career-high 28 points and added 12 rebounds in the win over the Blazers.

With the win over UAB, the Bruins have now won six of their last seven games. “There’s no better time to do [go on a run] than March,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said.

Tomorrow, the Bruins will not only be looking for a spot in the Elite Eight, they’ll also be seeking a measure of revenge. In December, the Zags traveled to California and handed UCLA its first home loss of the year (87-74). If the Bruins are going to reverse that scoreline, they’ll have to be much better on defense. In the first meeting, the allowed Gonzaga to shoot nearly 60-percent from the field, including 9/19 from beyond the arc.

As for the Bruins against the Bulldogs, UCLA has a chance to cover the 8.5-point spread, but, with the team upping its defensive play of late, the better play is the under (145.5).

(Photo credit: SD Dirk (flickr) []. Photo has been cropped.)

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