Sticking it out is starting to pay off for UCLA’s Kenneth Nwuba
Coach Mick Cronin wasn’t being sarcastic when he told an end-of-the-bench forward who went scoreless, missing his only shot, that he had been the game’s most valuable player.
UCLA probably doesn’t beat Arizona without Kenneth Nwuba.
The Bruins were safeguarding their top two big men on the bench because of foul trouble against the Wildcats on Saturday when Nwuba entered the game with about seven minutes left in the first half.
His opening sequence wasn’t the stuff of dreams. Nwuba committed a foul nine seconds after stepping onto the court, giving the Wildcats two free throws.
It was what came next that earned Nwuba the kind words from his coach and a sturdy chest bump from teammate Cody Riley. Arizona’s following five possessions ended in a turnover, a missed three-pointer, a missed layup that Nwuba rebounded and two more turnovers.
UCLA has won four games in row and climbed into first place in the Pac-12 by making the plays down the stretch in each game.
When UCLA guard Jules Bernard converted that final turnover into a layup, the Bruins had completed a 16-2 run on the way to a victory over the Wildcats while realizing they had found another capable post player who might change the dynamic of their frontcourt.
Nwuba’s breakthrough could allow UCLA to use a big lineup featuring both Riley and Jalen Hill to counteract Washington State’s size when the Bruins (9-2 overall, 5-0 Pac-12 Conference) face the Cougars (9-2, 2-2) on Thursday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion.
Should Riley or Hill get into foul trouble, Cronin knows he has another option in Nwuba, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound redshirt sophomore whose nine minutes against Arizona matched his previous combined total from earlier in the season.
“I wanted to win the game,” Nwuba said, “so I had to be like an anchor for the team, just my presence on the court.”
It had been a long wait to meaningful minutes. Nwuba mostly played at the end of blowouts during his first college season in 2018-19, averaging 2.9 minutes in his 17 appearances. He sat out last season as a redshirt to enhance his defense and post moves while working primarily with assistant Darren Savino, who develops the team’s post players.
Nwuba showed he still has improvements to make when he rushed a layup he missed against the Wildcats.
“I can do a lot more,” he said. “When I have a little bit of time and get calm and have my confidence in playing, then I could do a lot more on the court.”
His journey has involved traveling more than 6,000 miles from his native Nigeria just to find out he had a long way to go. He attended three high schools before his arrival at UCLA and experienced heartbreak in May when Ohmar Carter, his guardian and club basketball coach, died of colon cancer at age 45.
“Since I’ve been in America, he’s been like a dad to me, teaching me everything I know about basketball and life,” Nwuba said. “He was a great man.”
Nwuba hasn’t seen his family since coming to the United States, communicating through social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. His story has been one of perseverance, playing sparingly with the Bruins rather than chasing a larger role elsewhere through the transfer portal.
“There’s so many kids opting out and quitting on their team when they don’t play,” Cronin said, “and here’s a guy that just keeps trying to get better without getting in the game and he comes in every day and asks how you’re doing and works his butt off in practice.”
And, as the Bruins are increasingly discovering, in games.
VS. WASHINGTON STATE
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.
Update: The Cougars present a unique challenge beyond savvy senior guard Isaac Bonton (17.7 points per game) because they have surrounded their top player with big men who can make three-pointers. Center Efe Abogidi is shooting 47.8% from beyond the arc and forward Andre Jakimovski is shooting 39.3%. The Bruins must hope Bonton wears down because of his heavy usage; his 35.6 minutes per game leads the Pac-12 and the Cougars have faded toward the end of recent losses to Arizona and Stanford.
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