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Heroics by UCLA’s freshmen against Arizona State bodes well for team’s future

UCLA freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit the game-winning shot against Arizona on Thursday, extending the Bruins' winning streak to six games.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

In the final frenetic minutes, when UCLA needed steely resolve and precision playmaking, it was instructive whom the Bruins had on the court Thursday night.

There was a shot-maker who would draw comparisons to NBA legend Larry Bird, Jake Kyman having buried five three-pointers, holding his arm aloft for effect after the fourth, while single-handedly forcing Arizona State to burn two timeouts.

There was a diminutive point guard who became the gritty little Bruin, Tyger Campbell repeatedly finding teammates on the way to a career high in assists that grew in the game’s closing sequence when he set a vicious screen.

Finally, most dramatically, there was the gamer who rose without hesitation for the final shot, Jaime Jaquez Jr. launching a legion of backyard copycats with his fearless three-pointer with six-tenths of a second remaining.

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As fans erupted inside Pauley Pavilion, soaking in Jaquez’s heroics that lifted the Bruins to a dazzling 75-72 victory over the Sun Devils and pull into a tie for first place in the Pac-12 Conference, it was impossible not to contemplate how the fun might just be getting started.

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez made a three-pointer with six-tenths of a second left to life the Bruins over Arizona State 75-72.

Kyman, Campbell and Jaquez shared a common thread besides being a power trio that sustained their team’s late-season surge; they’re all freshmen expected to be multi-year college players and sturdy building blocks for what suddenly appears to be a blindingly bright future under coach Mick Cronin.

“I’ve never seen UCLA like this since I’ve been here,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said after the Bruins overtook his team atop the Pac-12 Conference standings. “Maybe the Lonzo Ball year in terms of crowd and the energy in the building.”

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The threesome will provide a fascinating contrast to the freshman phenoms who will descend upon Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night for the Bruins’ final home game of the regular season.

Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green are all widely projected as NBA first-round draft picks despite enduring plenty of freshman moments for the Wildcats (19-9 overall, 9-6 Pac-12 Conference), who somehow find themselves looking up at the Bruins (18-11, 11-5) in the conference standings.

UCLA guard Jake Kyman shoots over Arizona State forward Mickey Mitchell during the Bruins' win Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Mannion has slipped considerably on draft boards after being considered a potential lottery pick, having struggled with his accuracy while forcing shots. Green possesses freakish athleticism but has been plagued with inconsistency and suffered a back injury that forced him to miss the trip to Los Angeles. Nnaji has gone from the most overlooked to the most coveted of the trio because of his scoring touch and toughness around the basket.

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UCLA subdued the three Wildcats, not to mention a sellout crowd that could never fully unleash its frenzy, during the Bruins’ 65-52 victory earlier this month in Tucson, holding them to a combined seven-for-33 shooting, and Nnaji and Mannion will need to be held in check once more Saturday with UCLA likely still needing wins to get into the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins have won six consecutive games and 10 of 12 but were still listed among the “First Four Out” in bracket projects released Friday by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm.

UCLA’s chances to win the Pac-12 regular-season title also remain muddled. Having resided in a three-way tie for last place as recently as Jan. 17, the Bruins are now tied with Oregon for first in the tightly bunched conference standings, only a half-game ahead of Arizona State and one game ahead of Colorado.

Regardless of how Cronin’s first season in Westwood finishes, the trajectory needle for his team will remain pointed firmly upward given its emerging core.

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Junior guard Chris Smith, UCLA’s leading scorer, might bolt for the NBA draft after this season, and redshirt sophomores Jalen Hill and Cody Riley could follow a long line of Bruins who departed with multiple years of college eligibility remaining despite many fans grousing they would be better served by coming back.

But Campbell, Kyman and Jaquez present a solid core that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Campbell has become the unifying force, collecting 25 assists to go with only four turnovers over his last two games while becoming the one player his coach hates most to take off the court.

“I was trying to sneak him out,” Cronin said after playing Campbell a touch over 36 minutes, “but every time I tried to sneak him out for a rest, they’re pressuring us. “

Kyman prompted the Bird comparison from Hurley after making five of eight three-pointers and twice forcing Hurley to burn timeouts in the first half.

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“Our guys know that Jake’s a weapon,” Cronin said, “so the passer is looking for him.”

Jaquez brought tenaciousness, his four steals helping to offset a UCLA offense that sputtered for stretches and serving as a prelude to his shot for the ages.

“Hopefully, the crowd had fun,” Jaquez said as part of an impromptu plea to fans. “I know we had a lot of fun jumping around after the game, hitting shots, everyone going crazy. So, hopefully, you know, come out Saturday, please.”


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