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By Bill Seals
Sports Reporter 

Bruins are closing in on a conference title

 

February 23, 2023

GEORGE LAASE

UCLA freshmen guard Amari Bailey

It is long overdue. The UCLA Bruins men's basketball team continued closing in on their first regular season conference title since the 2012-2013, sweeping the Stanford Cardinal and the California Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion this past weekend. The first place Bruins lead the second place Arizona Wildcats by 1.5 games and two games in the loss column, with four games remaining.

The Bruins defeated the Cardinal on Thursday night, 73-64, behind 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists from star forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., and they got 16 points and 9 rebounds from freshman star Amari Bailey in a blowout 78-43 win over the Bears on Saturday night.

The Stanford win was challenging, as the Bruins struggled to match the energy of Stanford and struggled with the Stanford motion offense. With 7:55 remaining in the game, Stanford led 57-53 and an upset seemed possible. But over the next seven minutes, the Bruins showed their championship qualities and their championship defense.

UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell knocked down a three-point shot to cut the lead to 57-56, guard Jaylen Clark drove through the Cardinal defense for a dunk, and Jaquez followed with two free throws to give the Bruins a 60-57 lead. That proved to be the difference, along with the stifling defense. With 45 seconds left in the game, the Bruins led 69-59. The Bruins had outscored the Cardinal 16-2 in a 7:10 period of time to take control of the game.

After the Stanford game, Bruin head coach Mick Cronin shared his thoughts on the come-from-behind win. "Give Stanford credit," Cronin said. "I told our guys, 'What did you think was going to happen?'" We handled them at their place. They are 6-2 in their last eight games. They've got some good players on that team and for three days they are getting ready for us. They are coming here to play one of the best teams in the country on the road. We were overconfident. We weren't ready for the fight."

Cronin was asked what he told his team at halftime. "You get what you deserve. They know. Did you think Stanford wasn't going to come ready to play? Maxime Raynaud is a good player. Brandon Angel stepped it up. Harrison (Ingram) is a McDonald's All-American. (Spencer) Jones is a great mover and a big-time scorer. It's not like they don't have talent. They have won six of their last eight. The problem is, we failed as a coaching staff tonight. We didn't have them ready. We were not humble tonight. But give them credit. It's the sign of a good team we were able to turn it around."

The attendance for the Stanford game was 10,241 and the crowd was raucous, which impressed Stanford coach Jerod Haase. "This is a great road environment and our guys competed," Haase said. "I thought for much of the game we played with discipline and executed the game plan pretty well. We need to be able to play and not turn the basketball over and play strong offensively, so that nothing bothers us."

The Bruins have been riding the shooting, rebounding, and leadership of Jaquez this season. Jaquez leads the Bruins in scoring and rebounding, and is second in assists, steals, and blocks. Jaquez has made the Pac-12 All-conference team the past two seasons and has also made the Pac-12 All-defensive team the past two seasons. The Bruins trailed at halftime and needed Jaquez to take control of the game and he did not shy away from the moment.

"I talked about this in a previous interview," Jaquez said. "This is my last year, and I've realized that I've only got so many games left, so I'm gonna go down swinging. No matter what, I know my guys trusted me, I know my coach trusted me. When they put the ball in my hands, I'm just ready to make a play whether it be shoot, pass, or just create. I'm just ready to do whatever the team needs to win."

Against Cal, the Bruins had a sellout crowd of 13,659 fans and Jaquez again led the Bruins in scoring with 20 points. The Bruins seemed to play with a chip on their shoulder and Cronin did reveal after the game what might have been driving the Bruins in a game that they were favored to win by 25 points and won by 35.

Before the game, the NCAA revealed their early NCAA projections and the Bruins were not selected as a No. 1 seed, despite being ranked No. 4 by the AP and being ranked 4th in the NCAA Net rankings. The Bruins are ranked 8th overall and as a No. 2 seed in the East region by the NCAA Tournament committee. The Arizona Wildcats are 6th overall and are the No. 2 seed in the West.

Cronin commented after the game that the rankings were "comical" and that he was "going to try not to laugh." The Bruins want to be one of the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament, which would put them in the West regional. The West regional will be held in Las Vegas. The East regional will be held in New York City. It is easy to see why Cronin is upset.

The Bruins have not been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament since the 2007-2008 season. Winning a regular season conference title for the first time in a decade and being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament would be a step in the right direction for the UCLA Basketball program.

The 2007-2008 season was the last time UCLA won both the regular season crown and was a No. 1 seed. Since the 2012-2013 season, Arizona has won four regular season conference titles and the Oregon Ducks have won three. Arizona and Oregon shared the regular season conference title in 2016-2017. For the Bruins, a basketball program with a storied history of winning titles, winning a conference title this season would seem to be long overdue.

UCLA's final regular season games will be against Colorado at 1 p.m. on the road on Sunday, they face Arizona State at home on Thursday and they battle second place Arizona at home on Saturday, March 4, at 7 p.m.

 

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