To say that 87-74 loss in December is serving as extra motivation for the Bruins (21-13) as they prepare for a rematch against the second-seeded Bulldogs (34-2) in the NCAA Sweet 16 on Friday might be an understatement.
“We take pride in defending our home court and they’re the only team that came in there and beat us this year,” UCLA freshman Kevon Looney said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder about that.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few knows the Bruins will be looking for revenge for that loss and that they’re dangerous despite being an 11 seed.
“They’re playing with a high level of confidence right now,” Few said. “They’re on a roll.”
Gonzaga’s Byron Wesley said Few keeps reminding them that the UCLA team they’ll see Friday is not the same team they beat in December.
“They’re a much better unit (now),” Wesley said. “Coach has really told us not to get too caught up in last game that we had with them because they’ve made it to this point in the season for a reason.”
Gonzaga is in the round of 16 for the sixth time and is looking for its second trip to the Elite Eight in this weekend’s South Regional in Houston. UCLA is in the regional semifinal for the second consecutive year and the fifth time in 10 seasons.
Gonzaga’s streak of 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances is the fourth-longest active streak and the Bulldogs are 21-17 in 18 trips to the tournament overall. UCLA has a storied history in the tournament, having won 11 national championships, with the last coming in 1995.
These teams have met just three times, with Gonzaga’s only loss coming in a 73-71 defeat in the Sweet 16 in 2006.
The Bruins have been great in the second half of the season, going 14-6 since a five-game losing streak that started with the loss to Gonzaga. UCLA coach Steve Alford was asked how his team is different than it was in that first meeting.
“Well, hopefully a lot,” he said. “Watching that tape a couple of times over, I think we’re a much more mature basketball team than what we were there.”
Gonzaga enters the game having won five straight behind the stellar play of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer. The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer leads the team with 17.1 points and 6.1 rebounds and had 24 points in the first meeting with UCLA.
Looney will try to slow him down on Friday.
“He’s really versatile,” Looney said. “So I have to try to get him out of his comfort zone and speed him up, and make it a more athletic game for him.”
But Wiltjer is far more concerned about his team’s defense than anything he does on offense.
“(Our defense) anchors our offense,” Wiltjer said. “When we can get stops we can run out and start to win games. We’ve been making it tough on opponents and hopefully we can continue that.”
Gonzaga and UCLA square off on Friday at NRG Stadium in Houston. Tip-off is scheduled for 4:10 p.m. (PT). The Bulldogs are pegged as an 8.5-point favorite against the Bruins.