LOS ANGELES (AP) — A mere six weeks ago, UCLA was 8-9 and in last place in the Pac-12 standings.
When the Bruins closed out a dramatic win over Arizona and then celebrated with their Pauley Pavilion fans in their seniors’ final home game Saturday night, the conference standings and UCLA’s fortunes had completely flipped.
First-year coach Mick Cronin and his selfless, determined Bruins are on a major roll, and not even the mighty Wildcats could slow them down.
Chris Smith scored 17 points, Tyger Campbell hit the tiebreaking jumper with 49 seconds left and UCLA ferociously rallied from a late deficit to take sole possession of the Pac-12 lead with its seventh consecutive victory, 69-64 over Arizona.
“Just like we drew it up,” Cronin said with a laugh. “We were underdogs tonight, and a lot of people still don’t believe in us. We’ve got to continue to play this way. We cannot change our mentality.”
That mental toughness has resurrected their season, according to Cronin and his players. Cody Riley and Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 11 points apiece for the Bruins (19-11, 12-5 Pac-12), who didn’t lead in the second half before Campbell hit his big shot while tumbling to the court.
Campbell had missed his first 10 shots before making the go-ahead basket. UCLA made only 33.3% of its shots in the game after a horrific start from the field — missing its first seven shots and hitting just 6 of 26 (23.1%) from the field in the first half.
The Bruins overcame it all.
“We’re just believing in ourselves,” said Smith, who hit two big shots in the final minutes, including the tying jumper with 1:21 left. “Always continuing to believe. Even when we were 8-9, we believed we could win games, and that’s what’s happening right now and making the NCAA Tournament a possibility.”
UCLA also forced turnovers by the Wildcats (19-10, 9-7) on three consecutive key possessions down the stretch while holding Arizona scoreless for 3:43 before Christian Koloko’s layup with two seconds to play.
“It’s simple, man,” Smith said. “Defense wins.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller was ejected with 12:28 to play in a one-point game after earning his second technical foul of the night, and his Wildcats struggled in the waning moments of their third consecutive loss.
“We played great for 34 minutes, and when you play like that in Pauley Pavilion, you usually get the win,” said assistant coach Jack Murphy, who took over for Miller.
Nico Mannion had 19 points and six assists for Arizona, and Zeke Nnaji added 16 points. The Wildcats led 62-58 on Nnaji’s dunk with 3:45 to play, but they didn’t score again until Koloko’s meaningless layup.
“It really felt great to get some shots,” said Mannion, the NBA prospect who has been in a significant shooting slump for most of the Pac-12 season. “I’m here and sticking with the process.”
UCLA moved a half-game ahead of No. 14 Oregon (22-7, 11-5), which didn’t play Saturday, atop the conference standings. The Bruins also secured a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.
UCLA has won 11 of 13 since mid-January, and its once-improbable NCAA Tournament hopes appear to be quite plausible after this tremendous late surge. A team that lost to Hofstra, Cal State Fullerton and Washington State earlier in the season grabbed a share of the conference lead with the Ducks on Thursday with a clutch win over Arizona State.
Miller got his first technical foul in the first half when he became apoplectic over a no-call on a blocked layup attempt by Mannion. Miller had saliva dripping down his chin while he screamed at the officials over the call, which appeared to be correct on replays.
Murphy wouldn’t speculate on whether Miller had got himself thrown out on purpose after another dubious call.
“I don’t know if any technicals are on purpose, but they certainly come from a good place,” Murphy said, recalling his own past experience as a head coach. “I just think tonight, Coach was in a good place when it came to what he was discussing with the officials.”
Arizona: The Wildcats’ ticket to the NCAA Tournament is essentially booked, but three straight defeats raise questions about their ability to succeed on big stages. Arizona didn’t play poorly in the second half until the final minutes, but its lack of execution on offense is alarming.
UCLA: The Bruins’ winning streak has provided a chance for Cronin to reach his 10th straight tourney after making the last nine straight with Cincinnati. UCLA’s success is everything the school hoped when it hired the veteran coach, and the Bruins suddenly appear capable of even more in March.
Arizona hosts Washington State on Thursday night in its penultimate home game of the season.
UCLA travels about 13 miles to face Southern California in the rivals’ regular season finale on Saturday.
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