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UCLA men’s basketball seeks to maintain momentum in Washington road trip

UCLA men’s basketball senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. dribbles around a screen. (Jack Stenzel/Daily Bruin)

Men's basketball


Washington State
Friday, 8 p.m.

Pullman
Pac-12 Networks
Washington
Sunday, 4 p.m.

Seattle
Pac-12 Networks

By Lauryn Olina Wang

Dec. 29, 2022 12:49 p.m.

If the Bruins cage the Cougars on Friday, it will be a first for all but two.

Only fifth-year guard David Singleton and redshirt senior forward/center Kenneth Nwuba have been on a squad that has beaten Washington State while on the road, a win in 2019 a month after Steve Alford was fired midseason. Since then, the blue and gold has come away winless in Pullman.

With the chapter closed on its nonconference slate, No. 11 UCLA men’s basketball (11-2, 2-0 Pac-12) is set to head north to face Washington State (5-8, 0-2) on Friday and Washington (9-4, 1-1) on Sunday.

“Going up there and playing has always been difficult for us,” said senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. “We have a lot more to do and a lot more to prove. This is when we’ve really got to start ramping up and playing our best basketball.”

The blue and gold’s ship has begun to right its sail with defensive discipline at the helm, rattling off eight straight wins. According to coach Mick Cronin, the numbers don’t lie.

“We’ve improved immensely defensively,” Cronin said. “Our deflection totals are way up. … We’re averaging almost 40 deflections again. Statistics will tell you if you get 40 deflections, you’re going to win 95% of your games.”

The Bruins’ win percentage hasn’t yet reached the .950 mark after an 0-2 showing in Las Vegas shortly before Thanksgiving. The blue and gold dropped its only two results of the season in the Sin City after comeback efforts from then-No. 19 Illinois and then-No. 5 Baylor.

But since then, UCLA hasn’t lost, including two wins against ranked opponents in then-No. 20 Maryland and then-No. 13 Kentucky on a hostile East Coast swing.

The Bruins’ 63-53 decision over the Wildcats in Madison Square Garden was in part thanks to the revolving big-men door comprised of Nwuba, freshman forward Adem Bona and redshirt freshman forward Mac Etienne – who contained reigning unanimous National Player of the Year forward Oscar Tshiebwe.

A similar strategy may be in store against Washington State’s forward Mouhamed Gueye, who is one of the top three rebounders in the conference with 8.2 boards per game. Cronin acknowledged that the Cougars’ overall presence on the glass and Gueye’s versatility will pose a challenge for the Bruins on Friday.

“They rebound the ball well, and my concern is back to the defensive backboard for this game,” Cronin said. “And he (Gueye) can score, he can pass, he rebounds. He’s a legitimate seven-footer. … They play through him in the post a lot.”

Bona whittled Cronin’s focus ahead of the Washington State contest down to one simple approach.

“Go up with two hands, grab the ball before anyone else,” Bona said. “That’s the goal.”

According to the rookie, the blue and gold’s forwards have continued to push each other in practice, and their respective improvement on the court is a testament to the chemistry they’ve cemented throughout the season. Nwuba, Bona and Etienne are in some ways representative of the diverse UCLA squad that mixes veterans with newcomers and players in between.

“We battle each other in practice every day,” Bona said. “It seems like it’s World War III, but it’s literally just practice. We feed off each other’s energy. Mac has a crazy energy, Kenny has a crazy energy. My energy flows everywhere, so kudos to those guys. They boost my energy.”

After battling at Washington State, UCLA will ring in the new year with a team it has won six consecutive games against. Washington is currently .500 in Pac-12 play after losing 66-65 to Oregon State away before tallying a 10-point win against Colorado at home. Two of the Huskies’ four losses have come against ranked opponents, including an attempted comeback against then-No. 23 Auburn.

Seeking his first road sweep of the Washington schools, Jaquez – who paces the Bruins and ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with 17 points per game – said the Pacific Northwest road trip is also a barometer for UCLA’s progress and potential.

“This is really a checkpoint for us,” Jaquez said. “We finished the first half of the season. Let’s see how good we can get in the second half.”

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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