If UCLA doesn’t make the NCAA tournament at the end of this stirring late-season run, the groans of Bruins fans could be drowned out by the sighs of relief from the teams still playing.
Call it March Gladness.
UCLA has become a team almost nobody wants to play, and only partly because of its stifling defense. The Bruins also unleashed a rare display of offensive precision during their 70-63 come-from-behind victory over No. 18 Colorado on Saturday at the CU Events Center, committing zero turnovers in the second half.
Redshirt freshman point guard Tyger Campbell was unflappable, handing out a career-high 11 assists to go with only one turnover against a defense that was geared to stop him.
“We tried to start double-teaming Campbell and try to make it a little tougher on him to make his reads and make his plays,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said afterward, “and that didn’t work.”
It’s become something of a theme. UCLA (17-11 overall, 10-5 Pac-12 Conference) has proved nearly unstoppable during a stretch in which it’s won nine of 11 games, including a season-high five in a row, to get back into contention for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins have shown they can win at home and on the road. They can dominate from the opening tipoff, come back from double-digit deficits and prevail in taut finishes. They can withstand relatively quiet nights from leading scorer Chris Smith.
Redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley became the fifth different leading scorer in UCLA’s last nine games Saturday when he finished with 16 points, including a layup with 24 seconds left that essentially sealed the victory. Riley was part of a Bruins bench that contributed 28 points on 13-for-19 shooting.
UCLA also refuses to fold. It held Colorado scoreless for seven minutes while turning a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead as a result of its 14-0 push. The Bruins won in large part by getting nasty and dominating inside, finishing even in points in the paint after Colorado had led by 16 in this category at one point in the second half
Defensively, UCLA stopped giving up the uncontested layups and dunks that led to the big deficit by swarming the Buffaloes.
“They’re just ultra-physical,” Boyle said. “You see them trying to blow up handoffs and get into your space. You beat your guy, there’s a secondary defender there, and they’re gonna get up into you, and they’re going to be physical.”
Colorado also had trouble scoring from long range, making just five of 19 three-pointers (26.3%). UCLA coach Mick Cronin said his team’s defensive improvement has come largely as a result of a newfound ability to stay in front of its man. For the season’s first three months, defenders were constantly getting beat, forcing teammates to help and leaving shooters open because of bad rotations.
“We got beat so much,” Cronin said, “that we were always helping and teams were raining in threes on us.”
While some might see UCLA as a young team that has grown up like a teenager sprouting six inches over the summer, Cronin said his team’s surge can’t wipe out the memory of how poorly it played in November and December.
“It makes me realize how fragile it all is because you start reverting back,” Cronin said, “but I’m happy for the kids. When you’re trying to build your program and you preach certain things and then they do it and then it’s reinforced with victory and then players are playing well — so they look better — then theoretically they’re going to listen to you.”
The Bruins were fully engrossed when Cronin reminded them of their defensive identity in a timeout huddle nearly midway through the second half. After giving up 50 points over the game’s first 27½ minutes, they gave up only 13 points over the final 12½ minutes.
“To be able to come in here and we’re nine down with 12 to play on the road against a great team and they’re playing all juniors and seniors and you’re playing freshmen and sophomores and you’re able to pull it out,” Cronin said, “it’s monstrous for us. Every time we win, the next game gets bigger.”
UCLA’s next big game comes Thursday at Pauley Pavilion against Arizona State. The Sun Devils (19-8, 10-4) are atop the Pac-12 standings, have won seven games in a row and still have good reason to fear what comes next.