The UCLA men’s basketball team believes it can win the Pac-12 Tournament, but evidence against that belief has been heaped around the Bruins all season.
On Saturday against Washington, UCLA painted a different picture. The lasting image was one of a team that seemingly paid no heed to national media scrutiny and was able to play poised in a tight game. The 75-69 win capped off arguably UCLA’s best weekend of conference play.
“I don’t think nothing changed,” senior guard Jerime Anderson said. “We’ve been getting better every single week in league (play). Sometimes balls don’t bounce our way and we get losses, but I could see the improvement in our team every week.”
UCLA (18-13, 11-7 Pac-12), the team picked in the preseason to finish first in the conference, took down a team that could have clinched an outright Pac-12 title with a win.
“We just beat the first-place team in our league that would have won the championship outright,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They were playing for a lot. We got their very best effort, and I was really pleased with how we handled it.”
It was Washington (21-9, 14-4) that could not execute in the waning moments. That had been UCLA’s problem all season ““ three of the Bruins’ losses in conference play have been by three points or less, including a 71-69 heartbreaker in Seattle in the teams’ first matchup this season.
A slim Washington lead was erased by UCLA early in the second half and the teams began to go back and forth.
The Bruins were in the same situation as their first matchup with the Huskies: needing to get points on Washington’s tough zone defense. This time, they were able to do it with a little determination.
Sophomore center Joshua Smith hustled to grab an offensive rebound and put the miss back in to tie the game at 67. The Bruins turned the ball over on the very next possession, but stole it right back. Then, a couple of senior guards playing their final home games in Bruin uniforms cracked the Husky zone when Jerime Anderson found Lazeric Jones for a straightaway mid-range jumper, part of Jones’ game-high 20 points.
They persisted even after Washington tied the game once more. It took three shot attempts until redshirt sophomore forward Travis Wear tipped home a miss to give UCLA the lead for good with 48.2 seconds left.
Most importantly, as Jones said, “We just went out and got stops.” The Bruins withstood two Husky shot attempts in the final 40 seconds to preserve the win.
Resilience was the theme du jour on a day UCLA changed perceptions of itself.
“I think the adversity of this week probably brought us closer together,” said Howland, referencing the nationally circulated Sports Illustrated story that portrayed him as a coach who had lost control.
“Regardless of what anybody thinks outside, this team is very close,” Anderson said. “We love our coach, respect him and have his back totally. One hundred percent.”
UCLA jumped up to No. 5 in the Pac-12 standings with the win and will face last-place USC at Staples Center on Wednesday in the first round of the conference tournament. The Bruins will enter with momentum and hope to leave with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we’re starting to thrive, or surge, at the right time,” Anderson said.
“If I were any (other) team, I wouldn’t want to see us. That’s all I’m going to say.”