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Despite injury to Adem Bona, UCLA men’s basketball keeps confidence intact

Freshman forward Adem Bona yells after a play. Bona left No. 1 seed UCLA men’s basketball’s win over No. 4 seed Oregon on Friday night early in the second half with a shoulder injury. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Sam Settleman

March 11, 2023 11:56 a.m.

LAS VEGAS — Adem Bona dove across the floor in tireless pursuit of a loose ball.

The freshman forward had given possession back to UCLA early in the second half as part of a run that put the Bruins up eight and their fans on their feet. It was a sequence that looked eerily similar to one that had taken place just six days prior – in more ways than one.

In a win over Arizona last Saturday, junior guard Jaylen Clark notched a steal and quick score that put UCLA up 11. But just like Clark, Bona didn’t get up after the momentum-shifting play, the freshman grasping at his left shoulder in pain.

“We’ve just been in these situations before,” said senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. “Four years. We get a lot of experience.”

Bona ultimately didn’t return for No. 1 seed UCLA men’s basketball, but the Bruins didn’t blink in what ultimately ballooned to a 19-point win over No. 4 seed Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals Friday night. UCLA had done just the same against Arizona the week prior, locking down the Wildcats in the second half despite the absence of Clark.

Coach Mick Cronin had no update on Bona’s status after the game.

“You think I’d tell you?” Cronin said. “No idea. He looks good in the locker room.”

With Bona’s status in question, UCLA will get another crack at No. 2 seed Arizona in the conference championship game Saturday, potentially down two starters from its matchup with the Wildcats just a week ago.

(Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)
Bona walks off the floor while grabbing at his left arm. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

The injury to its starting big man put an immediate dent in UCLA’s second-half advantage Friday. A 12-3 run early in the frame had put the Bruins up eight, but the Ducks cut their deficit to three in an instant, taking advantage of Bona’s absence with a wide-open rim run from center N’Faly Dante.

Nevertheless, redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell responded by scoring 11 of UCLA’s next 13 points in a run that put Oregon in dire territory.

“They cut it to three and Coach called some great plays, and our bigs were getting me open on our ball screens,” Campbell said.

[Related: Tyger Campbell propels UCLA men’s basketball to spot in Pac-12 championship game]

Bona had tallied four points, four rebounds and one emphatic swat in the first half, playing 14 minutes by avoiding foul trouble despite Dante regularly challenging the freshman down low.

Oregon’s 6-foot-11 All-Pac-12 First Team center, and its leading scorer, was held to just 3-of-11 shooting with eight points Friday night.

Cronin said while he still tried to throw some perimeter players at Dante in the post, his big men held strong against Oregon’s trio of 7-footers – even with Bona out for most of the second half.

“We did a good job, no doubt about it,” Cronin said. “We’re not the biggest team in the world. But like I said, it’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play.”

Redshirt freshman forward Mac Etienne filled in the rest of the minutes at the five for UCLA in the first half, but with Bona sidelined, the Bruins went to a two-man rotation with Etienne and redshirt senior forward/center Kenneth Nwuba.

Nwuba has played sparsely as of late – with Etienne the only big off the bench in UCLA’s quarterfinals win Thursday – after sustaining a hamstring injury a month ago. With a +12 plus/minus in just eight minutes Friday, Nwuba notched two blocks in the span of just over a minute as part of a run that dealt the final blow to the dwindling Ducks.

“Those are big-time blocks too. He came from out of nowhere. I didn’t know he was going to get those,” Cronin said. “It was good to see him moving good again.”

Injuries to two of its starters may make UCLA’s path through the postseason more difficult, but in the short term, the Bruins seem unfazed.

“Not a shock,” Cronin said. “It’s why guys get scholarships.”

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Sam Settleman | Sports editor
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently the Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and gymnastics beats. He was previously an assistant editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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