UCLA shows in comeback vs. Arizona State how it could be built for March

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Ben Bolch
·4 min read
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UCLA forward Mac Etienne, left, celebrates with guard Jaylen Clark (0).
UCLA forward Mac Etienne, left, celebrates with guard Jaylen Clark after Clark made a free throw with 1.4 seconds left to lift the Bruins to an 80-79 win over Arizona State on Saturday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It was the sort of celebration usually reserved for March, in some cramped, faraway locker room.

This one started inside the familiar confines of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday after UCLA’s most exhilarating victory of the season. Athletic director Martin Jarmond made a short speech in the locker room before unveiling the ball he had been hiding behind his back. Jarmond held it out, presenting it to Mick Cronin in commemoration of his 400th coaching victory in Division I.

Guard David Singleton bounded from his seat, leading the charge as every player converged around Cronin and formed one joyous, hopping mass, roaring and laughing about the implausibility of it all.

The Bruins had spotted Arizona State the game’s first 10 points and couldn’t do much of anything to stop the Sun Devils’ small, quick guards. The Bruins kept turning the ball over. The Bruins trailed until the final second.

The Bruins won.

“It was an ugly start and it was an ugly game,” forward Cody Riley said after his team had completed the comeback for an 80-79 victory, “but we just kept fighting.”

Along the way, UCLA gave itself a template for carrying this late-season joyride into the NCAA tournament. Never give up, even when everything is going wrong and the scoreboard shows you’re trailing by seven points with less than four minutes to play.

It would have been easy for shoulders to slump and heads to sag after Bruins guard Jules Bernard drove into the lane and had his shot blocked, triggering an Arizona State fast break that ended with Kimani Lawrence throwing down a dunk and getting fouled. Lawrence’s free throw gave the Sun Devils a 77-70 lead and appeared to end UCLA’s hopes of pulling into a tie with USC atop the Pac-12 Conference standings.

Nope.

The Bruins (16-5 overall, 12-3 Pac-12) got there after enjoying one reversal of fortune after another. Bernard made up for that wayward drive with a three-pointer. Riley shook off the foul trouble that limited him to 19 minutes with two free throws and a layup. Point guard Tyger Campbell, one of several Bruins defenders scorched by Arizona State’s Remy Martin, finally got the best of his counterpart in the final minute.

Cronin told his sparkplug that he needed to make a play and Campbell complied, stealing the ball from Martin and drawing a frustration foul with 39 seconds left and UCLA trailing by two points.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell tries to drive past Arizona State guard Holland Woods.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, tries to drive past Arizona State guard Holland Woods during the second half of the Bruins' win Saturday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“I just got my hands in there when he drove right,” Campbell said, “and I just happened to get a good steal.”

Campbell sank the free throws to tie the score and Cronin called timeout to set up his defense in hopes of one more stop. He told his players to go into a 2-3 zone to prevent the Sun Devils from driving into the paint and forcing contact that would lead to a foul. The plan worked when Holland Woods took a three-pointer that missed and UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. snagged the rebound with 12 seconds to go.

Seeking more last-minute magic, Campbell drove into the lane for a runner. The ball bounced off the rim but Bruins guard Jaylen Clark was there, going up not once but twice with heavily contested putbacks. Clark got fouled on the second one with just 1.4 seconds left.

The freshman missed the first shot but made the second to give UCLA the only lead it needed, Clark getting swarmed by his teammates after the Sun Devils’ desperation half-court shot at the buzzer was well off the mark.

“It was just their night for a while,” Cronin said, “but the only thing that matters on that stat sheet is the final score.”

Other standouts had emerged for a team facing a miniscule margin for error with guard Chris Smith (season-ending knee injury) and forward Jalen Hill (personal reasons) out.

Freshman forward Mac Etienne made all three shots and all three free throws while playing admirable defense with Riley stuck on the bench for long stretches. Jaquez grabbed 10 rebounds. Singleton made two three-pointers off the bench.

It was the sort of collective effort that UCLA will need in its march toward a memorable March.

“You get in the NCAA tournament — hopefully we get there — you’ve got to realize the game’s never over,” Cronin said. “So a game like this you can draw upon, right? You know, here’s how we came back. We played [the final] 13 minutes with only one turnover against Arizona State. We got a shot up, we got to the foul line, we were able to stop the clock, we got better defensively.

“So hopefully it could help us down the road with our confidence if we’ve got to come from behind.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.