UCLA defeats Colorado to clinch its first Pac-12 championship in a decade
It was a natural high at 5,346 feet above sea level.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. hurled the ball off the bottom of the scoreboard. Tyger Campbell and Dylan Andrews exchanged a flying body bump and a tight embrace. Adem Bona raised a clenched fist to acknowledge cheering fans as he walked into a tunnel.
For the first time in a decade, UCLA is the outright Pac-12 champion.
The fourth-ranked Bruins got there after shaking off a brutal first half and owning every highlight in the final minutes of an unexpectedly taut 60-56 victory over Colorado on Sunday afternoon at the CU Events Center.
UCLA senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. probably will end his career as an All-American. How he became a co-favorite for Pac-12 player of the year award.
“Great resiliency,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after his team overcame an early 10-point deficit to prevail despite making only one of 14 three-pointers.
UCLA’s eighth consecutive win gave the Bruins (25-4 overall, 16-2 Pac-12) a three-game lead over second-place Arizona and USC with two games to play before the conference tournament.
A brief on-court celebration served as a prelude to some pulsating music and booming banter in the locker room that could be heard in an adjacent hallway. Cronin instructed his players not to douse him with any beverages given they still need to win more games to seize the No. 1 seed in the West for the NCAA tournament.
“We were just excited,” Jaquez, who led the Bruins with 17 points, said of the festivities, “but we’ve got to understand, we’re playing for something a lot bigger than this.”
Everything remained in play thanks to the Bruins’ latest closeout special. Campbell scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half, including two tricky shots in the final minutes. The first came on an acrobatic scoop layup around 7-foot-1 center Lawson Lovering before the point guard made a step-back jumper that gave UCLA a 56-53 lead.
“Tyger brought us home late,” Cronin said. “We were searching for offense, I put the ball in his hands.”
Missing star forward Tristan da Silva, who sprained his ankle with five minutes left, Colorado (15-15, 7-12) closed to within two points after drawing a foul and making one of two free throws.
The tension heightened when the Buffaloes got the ball back before point guard K.J. Simpson made the mistake of challenging Bona, who swatted his shot to start a fast break that ended with an Amari Bailey dunk that gave UCLA a 58-54 cushion with 16 seconds left.
“Not a shock,” Cronin said. “I mean, you can’t just drive it there and shoot it in Bona’s face. That doesn’t work.”
Two more Colorado free throws with nine seconds left after UCLA’s Jaylen Clark fouled out while fighting for a rebound gave the Buffaloes renewed hope. But Jaquez crushed it with a long inbounds pass to Bailey for a breakaway that was thwarted with a foul. Cronin called the play in the timeout huddle and Jaquez executed it to perfection after reading the defense.
“I saw the defender was playing on the inside and no one was back,” Jaquez said, “and I was like, oh, it’s over.”
It soon was after Bailey made both free throws with seven seconds left to extend UCLA’s advantage to four points. Campbell stole Colorado’s final pass along the baseline with one second to go, sparking the celebration as the Bruins savored their first Pac-12 regular-season championship since the 2012-13 season.
Cronin said his team would not take a leisurely approach to its final regular-season games given the Bruins want to protect a 23-game home winning streak that’s the longest in the nation. They also want to send seniors Jaquez, Campbell and David Singleton out as winners in their final home game next weekend against Arizona in a game that figures to be emotionally charged even without a title at stake.
“I think we would have loved to have all the marbles on the line the last game of the season, I think that would have been fun,” Jaquez said, “but obviously we wanted to get it done as fast as we can.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 23 points as No. 4 UCLA held off a late Utah rally to win 78-71 and inch closer to their first Pac-12 regular season title since 2013.
The Bruins were practicing Saturday when Arizona State’s Desmond Cambridge Jr. made a 60-footer at the buzzer to stun Arizona, giving UCLA an unforeseen chance to clinch the title against the Buffaloes.
“We were obviously excited,” Jaquez said, “we knew what that meant and we wanted to finish the road trip off on a good note.”
They got it done, giving Cronin the first major-conference championship of a 20-year head coaching career after his teams had finished in second place twice and in fourth place once in his first three seasons with the Bruins. Was this his most satisfying title?
“You know, I’ll make it about the kids; they wanted to win it,” Cronin said before breaking into a wry smile. “You know, now that you said that, I need to check my contract.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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