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UCLA keeps holding closeout specials to open new year

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang drives between Arizona's Terrell Brown Jr. and Azuolas Tubelis.
UCLA guard Johnny Juzang drives between Arizona’s Terrell Brown Jr. (31) and Azuolas Tubelis during the second half on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz. UCLA won 81-76.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Close calls under Mick Cronin usually end in a smile, not a wince.

Consider all the happy faces at the end of UCLA’s last four games. All four were tightly contested. All four came down to the last minute of regulation. All four resulted in Bruins victories.

It’s become a trend for Cronin’s teams. UCLA is 12-3 in games decided by five points or fewer under Cronin (including overtime games in which the final margin might have been larger), including 5-0 this season.

If a handful of plays had gone differently, the Bruins’ four-game winning streak might just as easily be a four-game losing streak. But they keep finding ways to get it done.

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UCLA could finally exhale against Utah after Jules Bernard intercepted a pass in the last second.

Despite nearly running out of big men Saturday night, UCLA held on for an 81-76 win at Arizona that kept the Bruins alone atop the Pac-12 standings.

It could celebrate against Colorado after making three of four free throws in the final minute.

It could shrug off some sloppiness at the end of regulation against Arizona State after Cody Riley went into superhuman mode with eight points in overtime.

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It could soak in another road triumph over Arizona after Jaime Jaquez Jr. offset a turnover with a steal and the Bruins made six of eight free throws in the final minute.

Success at the free-throw line has been pivotal. UCLA has made 14 of 20 free throws (70%) over the final minute of regulation during its winning streak. Riley has been nearly perfect at the line late in those games, making 10 of 12 free throws over the final five minutes.

Cronin said the Bruins complete a practice drill in which the team has to make 21 free throws in five minutes, with misses requiring a sprint for the entire team and misses on the front end of one-and-one situations requiring even longer sprints. Players resume shooting free throws as soon as the sprints end to simulate the fatigue they would feel in a game.

It’s helped that the Bruins have entered the final minutes of their recent games with leads of two points (against Utah), three points (against Colorado and Arizona State) and four points (against Arizona).

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“We are a team that can kind of thrive in those moments because we’ve been there and we know what to expect and we know what we need to do to win,” Jaquez said. “We’ve had four close games and by the fourth one, you’re going to know what to expect and the nerves kind of go away.”

Cronin pointed out that the closeouts wouldn’t have been needed had his team kept larger leads from dwindling. The Bruins led Utah by 10 points early in the second half; they led Colorado by seven points with 2:16 left; they led Arizona State by six points with 5½ minutes left in regulation; and they led Arizona by eight points midway through the second half.

“We’ve had some games that shouldn’t have been so close,” Cronin said, adding that his team needs to be better at getting stops. “We have got to have more of a pride about who we are on the defensive end and if we do not, we will not go where we want to go as a basketball team.”

After staying quiet on issues of social injustice in the past, UCLA basketball star Michaela Onyenwere decided to take a stand after the death of George Floyd.

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Etc.

Jaquez said Arizona coach Sean Miller called him over after the end of the Bruins’ 81-76 victory on Saturday to tell him he admired the way he had played. Jaquez scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in the second half. “Whenever you have an opposing coach give you a compliment, everyone feels good about that,” Jaquez said. “You know, you’re playing to win, and for them to acknowledge how hard you play, it’s a great feeling.” … UCLA was ranked No. 21 in the Coaches’ Poll but remained unranked by Associated Press.


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