Whoever handles scheduling for the Pac-12 Networks has a wry sense of humor, running a feature on the Pac-12 All-Century Team in the time slot before UCLA played Washington on Saturday.
Highlights of Bruins legends Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton on championship teams orchestrated by coach John Wooden were followed by the current team missing 12 of 18 free throws and going more than nine minutes without a point in the first half.
It was the character of a team that continues to persevere when turnovers are piling up, top players are missing and more than half of the remaining roster seems out of sorts. The Bruins are 9-1 this season in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime, keeping them in the conference title race amid circumstances that would have made a less sturdy bunch wilt.
“The biggest thing for me coming to UCLA was to build a culture that you have to have the competitive toughness to defend and do the uncomfortable things that go into winning,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said. “That’s what the Lakers do, that’s why they won a title, they’re an elite defense in the playoffs.”
UCLA had been anything but elite two nights earlier, giving up 81 points in a loss to Washington State. Cronin challenged his players to show renewed vigor that could carry them when other aspects of their game faltered.
“You know, I’m a big believer in 75% of this is the way you compete and you’ve got to teach your kids what championship effort is,” Cronin said. “There’s a difference between effort, winning effort and championship effort. You know, you can give effort, but there’s NIT effort. So what I’m trying to teach these guys is championship effort and that’s got to be the staple of what we’re about.”
What the Bruins unveiled against the Huskies could be described as at least NCAA tournament effort on a night when so many other things went wrong. UCLA finished with more turnovers (14) than assists (13), missed all those free throws and failed to get more than six points from anyone besides Juzang (a career-high 32 points) or Jules Bernard (14). There also were repeated defensive breakdowns that allowed Washington’s Marcus Tsohonis to come off the bench and make six three-pointers in the second half.
None of it mattered after Juzang and Bernard made jumpers in the final minute and UCLA (14-5, 10-3 Pac-12) got the defensive stops it needed to stay within one game of conference-leading USC.
After becoming UCLA’s first player to score at least half of the Bruins’ points since Reggie Miller tallied 38 on Dec. 19, 1986, during an 81-73 loss at Washington State, Juzang said his team finally understood the level of focus, intensity and togetherness it needed to exhibit every game.
“Just a super-high energy level,” Juzang said, “and always being the hardest-working team on the floor.”
Cronin said his players “grinded an ultimate win,” avoiding a loss that would have put them squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble after having dropped three of their previous four games.
With five games left in the regular season — barring any late additions after a series of COVID-19 postponements involving Oregon — UCLA probably needs to go at least 3-2 to be safely assured of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018, when the Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure in a play-in game.
A deep tournament run seems unlikely with go-to scorer Chris Smith lost for the season because of a knee injury and forward Jalen Hill’s return from personal issues in doubt. It would require tighter defense and more sustained production from point guard Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., among other things.
One thing the Bruins likely will have going for them is resolve.
“You compete and that takes care of everything, man,” Cronin said. “You can build a program from there.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.