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By Bill Seals
Sports Reporter 

UCLA heads to the Pac-12 basketball tournament with a win over ASU


March 14, 2024

George Laase (FSG)

Adem Bona of UCLA, shown here blocking a shot, was named the Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year for the 2023-2024 season. He was also named to the first team All-Pac-12 team.

The UCLA Bruins men's basketball team rallied to defeat the Arizona State University Sun Devils on Saturday Night, 59-47, in a critical victory heading into the men's Pac-12 basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The game was played at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus in the final regular season game in the Pac-12 for both the Bruins and the Sun Devils. The Bruins are headed to the Big Ten conference next season and the Sun Devils will be a member of the Big 12 conference next season. ASU ended the regular season at 8-12 in the Pac-12 and 14-17 overall.

The victory gave the Bruins a 10-10 record in Pac-12 conference and clinched the 5th seed in the upcoming conference post-season tournament which begins on Wednesday, March 13 in Las Vegas. The Bruins will take on the 12th seeded Oregon State Beavers at 2:30 PM on Wednesday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena.

The Beavers finished with a 5-15 conference record and in last place in the Pac-12. They were swept by the Bruins in the regular season. The victory over the Sun Devils ended a five-game losing streak in conference play and gave the Bruins a season sweep of ASU. The Bruins needed a win on Saturday Night to end their losing streak and to earn the 5th seed, which gives them a favorable matchup with the Beavers.

They also found their defense, which had been missing in action in recent games. Against the Arizona Wildcats on Thursday Night at Pauley Pavilion, the Wildcats scored 88 points, shot 51.9 % from the floor and outrebounded the Bruins, 41-29 in an 88-65 blowout victory over the Bruins. A frustrated UCLA head coach Mick Cronin was honest in his appraisal of his defense after the loss to Arizona.

"Getting backdoored as much as we got backdoored and our inability to guard the ball," Cronin said. "Marking a guy, keeping a guy in front of you and having some pride in it. Sebastian [Mack], Jan [Vide], Berke [Buyuktuncel], Brandon [Williams} and Will [McClendon] – they get beat every time somebody dribbles the ball. Most teams have to run stuff to hurt you. All you got to do is drive by us."

Against the Sun Devils, the Bruins defenders got the message and held the Sun Devils to 47 points, and just 16 points in the second half. The Sun Devils helped by missing 9 of 14 free

throws attempts in the game, but the Bruin defense played one of their best games of the season, holding the Sun Devils without a field goal for twelve minutes in the second half, which propelled the Bruins on an 22-2 second half run, going from a 43-34 deficit with 9:33 remaining in the game to a 56-45 lead with just 59 seconds remaining in the game.

The Bruins had their own offensive issues in the second half against ASU. They were held without a field goal for over ten minutes in the second half and went scoreless for nearly seven minutes. There have been a lot of rough stretches offensively this season for the Bruins and there are times when it looks like no one wants to shoot. The Bruins are a defensive team that needs to find enough offense to have a chance to win in the Pac-12 tournament.

"It's the only way we are going to win, that's just the way it is right now," Cronin said after the win over the Sun Devils. "That's not what I want, but with this team that is our reality, we have to defend to win. It's just the way we have to do it. We are not beating anyone 85-80. They [Arizona State] shot 5-22 in the second half. Once we stopped fouling, they weren't making shots."

To illustrate what Cronin is referring to, the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 65.6 points per game. They are last in scoring offense, averaging 65.9 points per game. The Bruins are second in the conference in field goal defense at 42.2%, and last in field goal percentage offense at 41.5%.

The Bruins have four players averaging in double figures: Center Adem Bona, Guard Dylan Andrews, guard Sebastian Mack, and guard Lazar Stefanovic. They need a fifth player to step up offensively and that player is probably 6-foot-9 freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel. He has shown that he has some offensive ability, he just needs to be more aggressive offensively, and look for his shot.

The matchup with the Oregon State should work in the Bruins favor. The Beavers are tough at home, with a 12-6 record and victories over Arizona, USC, and Utah at home. UCLA lost to all three teams at home. But the Beavers are just 1-12 in games away from their home court.

The Beavers are led by sophomore guard Jordan Pope, who averages 17.6 points per games and sophomore forward Tyler Bilodeau, who is averaging 14.4 points per game. They lack the kind of depth to beat the Bruins unless Pope and Bilodeau have great games.

George Laase (FSG)

Sebastian Mack of UCLA was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. Mack led UCLA in free throws attempted (161) and free throws made (116) during the season.

A win by the Bruins would set up a match on Thursday against the 4th seeded Oregon Ducks in Las Vegas on Thursday at 2:30 PM. The Ducks are 20-11 on the season and 12-8 in Pac-12 conference action. The Bruins split with the Ducks in two closely fought games during the regular season.

The Ducks have struggled with injuries this season. McDonald's All-American Nate Bittle and McDonald's All-American Mookie Cook have both played in just five games this season and are among four players that have had season-ending injuries and season long ailments.

The Ducks still have a lot of talent and experience on the roster. Their eight-man rotation consists of four seniors, two juniors, and two highly recruited freshman. They are led by 6-foot-11 center N'Faly Dante, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2023. Dante has missed 14 games this season with injuries, but he is back and playing well.

The game against Oregon State will be televised on the Pac-12 Network, and if the Bruins defeat the Beavers, the game against Oregon will also be available on the Pac-12 Network.


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