They could see it, on the clipboard that showed UCLA barely had any of its beloved deflections.
They could feel it, in the din of a sellout crowd that reverberated through the old arena with each basket the Bruins gave up.
They could hear it, through the words of a coach who no longer recognized a team that had fallen behind by nine points.
“This isn’t who we are,” Mick Cronin told his players in the timeout huddle Saturday afternoon almost midway through the second half. “They’ve got 50 points with 12:38 left to play, we’re going to give up 80. Them days are over, guys. This is not who we are anymore.”
Over the final taut minutes, with those words echoing in their heads, Cronin’s players showed that they were something else entirely. The Bruins were tougher and smarter and just better, rallying for a 70-63 victory over No. 18 Colorado at the CU Events Center that sustained an epic late-season surge.
When it was over, the defense having been tightened, the steely shot-making having endured, the turnovers having been eliminated entirely in the second half, UCLA junior guard Chris Smith hurled the ball toward the rafters in celebration of a season-high fifth consecutive victory that greatly enhanced the Bruins’ NCAA tournament chances.
“The feeling is indescribable,” Smith said after the Bruins (17-11 overall, 10-5 Pac-12 Conference) pulled into a tie with the Buffaloes (21-7, 10-5) near the top of the Pac-12 standings, a spot that seemed inconceivable after UCLA started conference play with three losses in its first four games. “We are the toughest team in this division by far.”
It wasn’t empty praise, the Bruins having swept their season series against the same Colorado team that several notable Buffaloes alumni had called the best in school history in a local newspaper column that ran Saturday.
It took a teamwide effort. Freshman shooting guard Jake Kyman made two three-pointers off the bench in the first half for the Bruins. Freshman point guard Tyger Campbell logged a career-high 11 assists while thriving in the pick and roll. Sophomore forward Cody Riley made an impressive array of moves around the basket on the way to a team-high 16 points.
None of it would have mattered had the Bruins not found the defensive identity that had gone missing. During one stretch of roughly 23 minutes spanning both halves that ended with Cronin berating his players in the timeout huddle, the Bruins had made only one deflection defensively. The Buffaloes drove unimpeded for layups and dunks as a result, building a 50-41 lead and thrilling the fifth-biggest crowd in the history of this arena.
The rest of the cheering belonged almost exclusively to the Bruins.
They scored 14 consecutive points, Smith clapping furiously as he backpedaled after making a three-pointer that pulled his team into a 50-50 tie. Cronin applauded his team’s toughness about a minute later, marching onto the court to slap hands with Riley during a timeout after Riley had forced a jump ball amid a scrum of bodies.
A Riley jump hook eventually completed the run, giving UCLA a 55-50 lead. The Buffaloes countered, but the Bruins refused to let up. Freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. extended his team’s advantage to 66-60 with 58 seconds left, shrugging off a missed free throw on the front end of a one-and-one situation only moments earlier to sink a three-pointer.
“I was just thinking, I’ve got to hit this shot right now,” Jaquez said. “I missed a free throw, so I’ve got to get it back.”
Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV (20 points) countered with his own three-pointer with 46 seconds left, but the 6-foot point guard had the misfortune of switching onto the 6-9 Riley down low on UCLA’s next possession. Riley made a layup with 24 seconds remaining to extend the Bruins’ advantage to 68-63 and Colorado missed its final three shots.
“When it was time to make a big play,” Riley said, “everybody stepped up.”
Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle took a microphone and apologized to fans afterward because his team couldn’t send out its two seniors in winning fashion during their final home game. The Bruins had no regrets about that.
“To come in here and quiet that big huge crowd and get a win on senior night,” Smith said, pausing to gather his thoughts, “oh, it’s surreal.”
This was one instance in which the stats told the story. UCLA notched 14 deflections over the final 13 minutes and went the entire second half without a turnover after committing seven in the first half.
The Bruins did it with heart, a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores listening to their coach and realizing they were exactly who he said they were.
“I love this group,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen a group rally like we did today. We were down nine, they were scoring every possession, the crowd was into it and we stuck together, came back and got a tough win.”