UCLA just went into one of the nation’s most unruly road environments and bludgeoned Arizona as if the Bruins had brought a pickax to a rock fight.
Now, it could be argued, comes the tough part for the Bruins. They have won five of their last seven games, including triumphs over two nationally ranked teams, raising expectations that they should close coach Mick Cronin’s first season with a memorable finish.
“You’re going to go write that we should win the rest of them,” a buoyant Cronin deadpanned to reporters late Saturday night at the McKale Center after his team polished off the No. 23 Wildcats, 65-52. “We figured it out, I finally did a good job coaching and you’ve been waiting all year for me to do a better job and we’ve got to win every game. It’s OK. That’s the way it goes. You hold teams to 30% [shooting], I like our chances.”
Arizona only wished it could have hit 30%. The Wildcats shot 25.4%, their worst percentage on their home court since it opened in February 1973. Projected NBA first-round draft picks Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji combined to make seven of 33 shots against a defense that looked as if it had been granted access to the Arizona game plan.
UCLA played with a brutish physicality that Arizona coach Sean Miller had seen before.
“I coached against Cincinnati and that’s who we played tonight,” Miller said afterward, alluding to Cronin’s Bearcats teams that rode dogged defense to nine consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament. “We just weren’t ready for it. It’s a man’s game. You have to be physical, you have to go through contact, you can’t cry.”
Outside the visitors’ locker room, the Bruins were smiling broadly after completing a rocket-fueled reversal following an 18-point loss to Arizona State two nights earlier. The difference was that they took away the Wildcats’ transition game, holding them to four fastbreak points after the Sun Devils had raced their way to 27.
UCLA also played perhaps its most complete game of the season, with junior guard Chris Smith saying it was “the first time we put 40 minutes together like this.” The Bruins contemplated their one weakness in the first half — rebounding — and made sure it didn’t linger, outrebounding the Wildcats by nine after halftime while limiting their second chances.
“Once we controlled the defensive glass,” Cronin said, “the game was over.”
Tyger Campbell proved to be the guttiest little Bruin, the diminutive freshman point guard pulling his teammates together for a pep talk after Arizona had completed an 8-0 run midway through the second half to pull within 45-44.
“We got into the huddle,” UCLA forward Jalen Hill recalled, “and Tyger was like, ‘They made their run, now it’s our turn.’”
The Bruins scored the next 14 points to seal their third consecutive victory at the McKale Center. Campbell contributed in a variety of ways, making a tough floater and finding teammate David Singleton in the corner for a three-pointer that completed the run, giving UCLA a 59-44 lead and sending some fans toward the exits.
“I’m just trying to play hard and win for my team,” Campbell, who finished with 12 points and five assists, said when asked about his relentlessness. “if that’s attacking, if that’s getting in the lane and passing, if that’s rebounding, I just try to do what I need to do to help my team win.”
Smith called Campbell “probably the purest point guard in college basketball at the moment” based on his ability to galvanize his teammates with his passing and unselfishness.
“Now, everyone wants to be like [Houston Rockets guard] Russell Westbrook — he went to UCLA — but Tyger is a pass-first guy and he just loves when his teammates succeed,” said Smith, whose game-high 15 points included a turnaround jumper that sparked his team’s big run. “That makes him happy. That just pulls a team together and that makes us play for each other when you know that somebody that’s handling the ball every single possession is trying to get you the ball when you’re open.”
Cronin said his team’s best showing of the season came after what he described as a great team meeting and practice the morning before the game. The coach who has talked about changing his players’ DNA from prioritizing offense to prioritizing defense and toughness just might have completed the toughest part of the transformation.
That is, of course, if the Bruins (13-11 overall, 6-5 Pac-12 Conference) can continue this upward trajectory with a month left before the Pac-12 tournament.
“I feel like this team can play like this all the time; we’ve just got to make sure that we keep doing it,” said UCLA forward Jalen Hill, who tallied nine points and nine rebounds off the bench in his return from a knee injury that had sidelined him against Arizona State.
How do the Bruins do that?
“Don’t get complacent,” Hill said. “We beat a good team? So, whatever. After today, it doesn’t matter. So just lock in in practice and just keep it going.”