Clark leads sweep over Washington school as UCLA gets ready to end regular season

After a tough 67-64 loss to the Trojans at USC on February 12, the UCLA Bruins returned to the Westwood campus last week, struggling with nagging injuries and inconsistent play on both ends of the floor. Bruin head coach Mick Cronin has said in the past that his team will "pout on defense" when they are struggling on offense and that appeared to be the case in a 67-64 loss to the Trojans.

Due to injuries and the struggles on defense, Cronin needed to make some changes to his starting lineup and his rotation. Guard Jaylen Clark was inserted into the starting lineup for the last Thursday night game against the Washington State Cougars. Clark replaced All-Conference point guard Tyger Campbell, who was sitting the game out for the violation of a team rule.

Cronin also made a change at the center position, moving Myles Johnson into the starting lineup to replace Cody Riley, who has not seemed as explosive since returning from an early season MCL knee sprain. As Cronin stated after the game regarding the lineup change to Johnson, "Just trying to start the guys that our playing the best – our best defensive lineup, our rebounding lineup. We need physicality and toughness. We don't need jump shots."

The Cougars came in with a 14-10 record and a Net Ranking of 46 among the 358 Division I basketball programs in the country. They have been a solid team this season. The Bruins were 17-5 with a Net Ranking of 13 and were also ranked No. 13 in the AP Poll. The Bruins are a lock to make the NCAA post-season tournament but still need to win for the highest possible seeding in the tournament.

The insertion of Clark and Johnson in the starting lineup provided a big boost to the UCLA defense, which translated to the offensive end as well, as the Bruins rolled through the Cougars, 76-56. Clark had a magnificent game, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, passing out five assists, and adding four steals to his night's work. All the statistical categories were season and career highs for Clark.

Guard Johnny Juzang led the Bruins with 19 points in the victory, going 3 for 3 on three-point attempts. Juzang was asked about Clark's performance and had high praise for his teammate. "Oh man, it's great," Juzang said. "This guy's a dog. We see it every day in practice. We all know he can go. Seeing that he plays with so much energy, such a high-energy player. It's great to see. We're all so happy for him. Nobody's surprised. Nobody's surprised at all."

After the game, Cronin also said he was not surprised by Clark's performance. "I would take you guys back to the beginning of the year, when I told you I didn't know how I wasn't going to start him," Cronin said. "He's had a tough year with the injuries, and it's really hurt us. This was the first week in two months that he's been able to string together three-straight practices. You start to see him get in shape."

Clark's energy was noticeable on defense. Cronin is big on defensive deflections and Clark helped lead the Bruins to a season high of 35 against the Cougars. The Bruins held the Cougars to 28.3% shooting from the field, a season low for the Cougars. Clark was involved in 12 of the 35 deflections. The strong defense led to a good offensive performance for the Bruins.

"If you just worry about hustling, and deflections, and rebounding, and get lost in the game, the ball will go in," said Cronin. "And just play. If you sit around and just start stressing over whether you're making shots, it's only going to get worse." The Bruins were 10 of 20 on 3-pointers, there best performance in conference play this season.

Cougar head coach Kyle Smith, who has done a good job of turning the Cougar basketball program around, was impressed by the Bruins. "That was a really well-played game by UCLA," said Smith. "I thought, tonight, they came out with a purpose. I think, after a loss to USC, they were going to come out and challenge their guys to be physical, get on the glass, and they took us off the boards. We had a hard time defending them. They beat us on the glass. When you're playing on the road, if you get outplayed in those two areas, it's really hard to win."

The Bruins followed up their performance against the Cougars with another gem on last Saturday night, easily defeating the Washington Huskies at Pauley Pavilion, 76-50. The Bruins built a 35-point lead in the second half with their stifling defense in the rout. Jaylen Clark had another break-out game, leading the Bruins with a new career-high of 25 points. Myles Johnson added 13 rebounds and three blocked shots.

On Monday Night, the Bruins completed the three-game home stand with a 66-52 win over the Arizona Sun Devils. Clark again led the Bruins, with 16 points, nine rebounds and three steals. The Bruins opened a 17-point first half lead, but the Sun Devils stormed back and closed to within one point at 46-45 with eight minutes remaining in the game.

From there, the Bruins clamped down on defense and held the Sun Devils to just seven points for the remainder of the game. The three wins on the home stand gave the Bruins a 20-5 record for the season. The Division I Men's Basketball Committee unveiled its top 16 teams over the weekend and UCLA was seeded at No.4 in the Midwest Region and #14 overall. The Arizona Wildcats were the No.1 ranked seed in the South Region and #3 overall. Gonzaga was the No.1 ranked seed in the West Region.

A strong finish should get the Bruins to a No.2 or No.3 seed. The emergence of Clark and Johnson will make the Bruins a deeper team in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins were a final four team last season, and they look even stronger this season as they head into the 2022 NCAA basketball tournament. Clark could be the difference maker in the tournament.

UCLA finishes the regular season when they travel to Oregon State on Saturday at 1 p.m. and they stay on the road for an 8 p.m. Monday night game against Washington on ESPN2. On Saturday, March 5, the Bruins host USC at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

The Pac-12 Tournament starts Wednesday March 9 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The tournament ends with the championship game on March 12.


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