It was the kind of celebration usually reserved for March, in some distant and narrow locker room.
It started within the familiar confines of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday after UCLA’s most thrilling win of the season. Athletic director Martin Jarmond gave a short speech in the locker room before revealing the ball he had been hiding behind his back. Jarmond held it out and presented it to Mick Cronin in commemoration of his 400th victory as a coach in Division I.
Guard David Singleton leapt from his seat, leading the charge as all the players converged around Cronin and formed a merry mass, leaping, roaring and laughing at the implausibility of it all.
The Bruins had seen Arizona State the first 10 points of the game and couldn’t do much to stop the fast little Sun Devils guards. The Bruins kept turning the ball over. The Bruins were left behind until the last second.
The Bruins won.
“It was an ugly start and it was an ugly game,” forward Cody Riley said after his team completed the comeback for an 80-79 win, “but we keep fighting.”
Along the way, UCLA has set itself a role model for bringing this season-ending pleasure trip to the NCAA tournament. Never give up, even when everything goes wrong and the scoreboard shows you are going for seven points with less than four minutes to play.
It would have been easy for shoulders to sag and heads to sag after Bruins guard Jules Bernard got into lane and his shot was blocked, prompting an Arizona State counterattack that ended with Kimani Lawrence pitching. a mate and receiving a foul. Lawrence’s free throw gave the Sun Devils a 77-70 lead and seemed to end UCLA’s hopes of tying USC for the top of the Pac-12 Conference standings.
The Bruins (16-5 overall, 12-3 Pac-12) got there after enjoying one change of fortune after another. Bernard made up for that wayward trip with a triple. Riley brushed off the foul problem that limited him to 19 minutes with two free throws and a layup. Point guard Tyger Campbell, one of several Bruins defenders burned by Arizona State’s Remy Martin, finally got the better of his counterpart in the last minute.
Cronin told his spark plug he needed to make a play and Campbell complied, stealing the ball from Martin and causing a lack of frustration with 39 seconds left and UCLA trailing by two points.
“I just got my hands there when he drove right,” Campbell said, “and it turned out I got a good steal.”
Campbell scored the free throws to tie the score and Cronin called a timeout to set up his defense in hopes of one more save. He told his players to get into a 2-3 zone to prevent the Sun Devils from getting into the paint and forcing contact that would lead to a foul. The plan worked when Holland Woods hit a missed triple and UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. caught the rebound with 12 seconds to go.
Looking for more last minute magic, Campbell headed down the lane in search of a runner. The ball bounced off the rim, but Bruins guard Jaylen Clark was there, coming up not once but twice on hotly contested putbacks. Clark was fouled in the second with just 1.4 seconds left.
The freshman missed the first shot but hit the second to give UCLA the only advantage it needed, Clark was overrun by his teammates after the Sun Devils desperate midfield shot at the bell was well off. of place.
“It was just his night for a while,” Cronin said, “but the only thing that matters on that stat sheet is the final score.”
Other standouts had emerged for a team facing a minuscule margin of error with guard Chris Smith (season-ending knee injury) and forward Jalen Hill (personal reasons) out.
Freshman forward Mac Etienne made all three shots and three free throws while playing admirable defense with Riley stuck on the bench for long stretches. Jáquez grabbed 10 rebounds. Singleton made two 3s off the bench.
It was the kind of collective effort that UCLA will need in its march to a memorable march.
“You go into the NCAA tournament, hopefully we get there, you have to realize that the game never ends,” Cronin said. “So a game like this that you can turn to, right? You know, that’s how we got back. We play [the final] 13 minutes with just one loss against the state of Arizona. We got a shot up, we got to the free throw line, we were able to stop the clock, we improved defensively.
“So hopefully it could help us in the future with our confidence if we have to come from behind.”