Shots don’t fall, fine. Mick Cronin can live with that.
Just keep grinding away on the other end of the court. Get your hand on the ball. Snag a steal. Start a fast break that ends in easy points to compensate for the sagging offense.
UCLA did none of that until it was too late Saturday during its biggest showdown of the season.
Even a late flurry of steals as part of four consecutive Arizona turnovers could not save the fifth-ranked Bruins during a 58-52 loss to the 11th-ranked Wildcats at an increasingly boisterous McKale Center.
Cronin didn’t like anything he saw from a team that lost for the first time in two months, halting a 14-game winning streak that was the longest in the nation among major conference teams.
“At UCLA, we try to play with heart and intestinal fortitude, and I don’t think we played that way,” Cronin said after the Bruins fell to 17-3 overall and 8-1 in the Pac-12 Conference. “I think we were offensive-sensitive all day, so I’m not impressed with our defense at all today. I could care less what the final score is. I didn’t think we played hard until the game was over.”
It was only UCLA’s second loss in four seasons under Cronin when holding an opponent under 60 points, the other coming during a 54-52 setback against USC in March 2020 that required Jonah Mathews’ buzzer-beating three-pointer.
Cronin’s displeasure with his defense was reflected in Arizona (17-3, 6-3) getting layups on 13 of its 19 made shots and the Bruins having only six deflections at halftime.
“We tried to pick it up in the second half, but I think by that time it was too late, especially in the last two minutes of the game,” UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been, and I take responsibility for that, not getting guys ready.”
There was momentary hope for a team that trailed by 12 points with less than two minutes left. UCLA center Adem Bona’s layup pulled his team to within 56-52 before a crazy sequence got the Bruins the ball back with 12.8 seconds left.
Arizona broke the Bruins' full-court press, finding Azuolas Tubelis under the basket. But Tubelis had his shot blocked by a fast-closing Jaquez before a putback by Pelle Larsson was stuffed by Bona. Officials initially called goaltending before reversing the call after a lengthy review and giving the ball to the Bruins.
In a fittingly frustrating finish, point guard Tyger Campbell missed a spinning layup and Jaquez couldn’t convert a tipin before Arizona tacked on two free throws.
Cronin said his team’s lack of shot-making bled over to its defense, dooming UCLA in its bid to take a commanding lead in the conference standings. The late sequence in which the Bruins got two steals from Jaylen Clark and one from Jaquez before forcing a five-second violation were not just maddening for the Wildcats.
“It shows you what you’re capable of when you play with your heart and your intestinal fortitude,” Cronin said. “You start playing with your mind — if you only play with your mind, your mind is on your missed shots instead of your mind needs to be on your effort.”
A chance to move into position for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, appearing before the Bruins like a desert mirage, vanished amid one brick after another.
Senior guard David Singleton, the team’s best shooter, missed all five of his shots. Clark made four of 13 shots on the way to 12 points. Campbell made five of 18 shots, two layups rolling off the rim, and finished with 13 points and seven assists.
There would be no repeat of the late success for Jaquez that had nudged the Bruins past Arizona State two days earlier. Frigid from start to finish, Jaquez made five of 17 shots and scored 12 points for a team that shot 31.3% and made four of 20 three-pointers (20%). Jaquez’s final three-point attempt could have pulled the Bruins to within three points with 51 seconds left.
“I thought my three in the corner was pretty open,” Jaquez said, “I just missed it.”
The partying intensified for Arizona students who had batted beach balls among themselves before tipoff. They arrived inside the old building with an assemblage of water sports inflatables, presumably as a nod to the spitting incident involving UCLA forward Mac Etienne a year ago. One fan wore an umbrella atop his head, and several students sitting in the front row donned rain slickers.
Etienne was booed when he emerged from the tunnel below the student section, ignoring the noise as he skipped toward warmups alongside his teammates. The beach balls were deflated and the water sports inflatables removed before the game.
But good sportsmanship was not in abundance. Students broke out a “F— you, Tyger!” chant at the first dead ball. The game was 15 seconds old.
It never got any better for the Bruins.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.