UCLA basketball’s 13 straight wins hold promise for March success
Pick a scenario, any scenario.
A taut game that comes down to the last possession. A rout before halftime. Down by double digits early. Ahead comfortably after a huge opening run.
Top players struggle. Shots don’t fall. There’s a huge second-half letdown. Barely any production from reserves. A starter goes down for weeks because of an injury.
What’s the common thread?
UCLA has prevailed in every situation.
No matter what has gone right or wrong, the seventh-ranked Bruins have won every game over the last 7½ weeks.
UCLA’s 13-game winning streak is the longest in the nation among major conference college teams, vaulting the Bruins (16-2, 7-0 Pac-12) atop the conference standings and putting them on a trajectory for a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Scoffing at the significance of a January winning streak, UCLA coach Mick Cronin joked that his team’s recent run and $4 could get somebody a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
Yet the ability to win in so many ways could also make the Bruins ideally suited for a Big Dance marathon in March and April, when six consecutive victories will be needed to remain the last team standing.
“At a dance contest, you got to be able to dance to every song they play,” Cronin said Saturday, relaying an old saying favored by his 81-year-old father, Hep. “Some are slow, some are fast. It ain’t the tango every night. You got to be able to win in different ways against different styles. But when you defend, you always got a chance.”
Their record notwithstanding, the Bruins are not a dominant team. They are not blessed with knockdown shooters outside of senior guard David Singleton. Their offense is prone to extended lulls.
None of that has derailed UCLA since its only two losses of the season, against Illinois and Baylor in late November.
The formula that has sustained the Bruins ever since hasn’t wavered. Defend like crazy. Move the ball without turning it over. Play with passion.
All were on display during UCLA’s latest high-wire act, a 68-54 victory over Colorado on Saturday night. Down by nine points with a little more than 10 minutes to play, the Bruins won in a runaway because they never quit defending.
“I knew that we were gonna be fine,” senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said, “as long as we stopped them from scoring.”
Unlike many players fixated on their scoring totals, these Bruins obsess over a statistic that doesn’t appear in the official box score. It’s their number of deflections, a metric that includes tipped passes in addition to steals and blocks.
As an unofficial statistic, it has led to some debates over accounting. After being told that Jaquez’s 10 deflections were one more than his total against Utah last week, guard Jaylen Clark wanted to rewatch footage of the game to make sure.
“Jaylen takes it personal,” Cronin said, “if someone has more than him.”
The Bruins have logged their last five victories without freshman guard Amari Bailey, whose absence because of foot discomfort has moved Singleton into the starting lineup while thinning the team’s bench depth.
Against Colorado, UCLA’s reserves took only two shots and went scoreless. They could shrug and smile afterward given the outcome.
What has pleased Cronin most about his team’s tightest wins during its streak — a one-point victory over Washington State and a two-point triumph over USC — is that it scored on its final possession and got a stop on its last defensive sequence.
“You’re going to have to do that,” Cronin said, “if you’re going to advance in March.”
UCLA owns the same record that it did at this point last season on the way to falling to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. That team relied heavily on the shooting of Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, who have both moved on, but it wasn’t as careful with the ball and its defense wasn’t quite the lockdown version displayed by the current Bruins.
UCLA has committed fewer turnovers than its opponent in every game this season. During their winning streak, the Bruins have held opponents to 57.1 points per game.
Defense often triggers offense, the Bruins getting out on the fast break for layups after steals. Against Colorado, they scored 25 points off 23 forced turnovers. Efficiency on both ends of the court makes this team a dual threat.
These Bruins remain relentless regardless of the circumstances, embracing the message Cronin delivered Saturday.
“I told them in the timeout: ‘I don’t need heroes. I need soldiers,’ ” Cronin said. “You know, soldiers win wars, heroes get people in trouble. In sports, heroes get you beat. You’ve got to be a soldier and keep doing your job, and eventually the worm turns.”
Tougher battles loom, including a three-game trip featuring tests against Arizona State (15-3) on Thursday, Arizona (15-3) on Saturday and USC (13-5) on Jan. 26.
When things get tough — a deficit mounting, a hostile crowd riding them — the Bruins can count on one outcome. They won’t surrender.
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