Gold: Bruins turn to Campbell and surprising bench mob in big win over Oregon
Adem Bona was down and Jaylen Clark was out and the UCLA men’s basketball team was left on fumes.
Midway through the 2nd half of their eventual 75-56 win over the Oregon Ducks on Friday night in the first of two Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, UCLA’s lineup consisted of David Singleton, a senior career backup but terrific bench shooter, fellow career reserve Kenneth Nwuba, and 3 freshmen who played a total of 982 minutes this year: Dylan Andrews, Abramo Canka and Will McClendon. Bona was banged up with a shoulder injury, the extent of which is not known, and the Bruins were facing limited options.
It was only for a short time, and it was only a stopgap, but the Bruins got through the worst of it. Soon later, UCLA swapped Tyger Campbell in for Singleton, and things really went nuts. Campbell hit a jumper, another jumper and a 3-pointer, a slick 7-point run that put the Bruins up 11 and Dana Altman called a timeout.
When all was said and done, UCLA used a 12-3 run to seize control of a close game and distance itself from the Ducks. And in one stretch the Bruins fulfilled Cronin’s prophecy from the day prior, when UCLA’s four bench freshman — with Mac Etienne joining Andrews, Canka and McClendon in combining for 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 points in 34 minutes.
“Well, they played a lot of minutes,” Cronin said on Thursday. “I don’t always put bench production on points. Will McClendon had four rebounds in the first half when we were playing with Adem and Amari with foul trouble. So he gives us a lot of the same attributes as far as toughness and rebounding and things of that nature. Look, Dylan gave us 12 minutes. So it was a normal game for us as far as minutes played when you look at the stat sheet.”
But unlike Thursday, when the Bruins’ other freshmen — Bona and Amari Bailey — led the way, UCLA turned to its trio of spectacular seniors against the Ducks.
Before the season tipped off, the dominant narrative coming out of the UCLA camp was all about Campbell’s impending offensive explosion.
The diminutive Bruin senior point guard — who plays much bigger than his 5-11, 180-pound stature — was said to have added to his offensive arsenal after three seasons of impressive production. Campbell averaged 8.3 points and 5.0 assists per game as a freshman in 2019-20, Cronin’s first season at the helm. He averaged 10.4 points and 5.4 dimes as a sophomore, helping lead UCLA to its first Final Four in more than a decade. Last year, he put up 11.9 points and 4.3 assists, and shot a career-high 44.4 percent.
Cronin saw much more in him.
“I want him in Steph mode,” Cronin said, smiling. “His role changes exponentially this year. He was playing pure point guard, taking care of the ball, facilitating, playing with guys who can really score on the wings. Now I’m asking him to be a big-time scorer. I totally tried to change his mentality this offseason.”
Finally, on Friday, maybe for the first time this year, we saw a little Steph.
He’s had good games this year — a 7-for-11, 22-point performance against Arizona State on Jan. 19 stands out — but no great games.
On Friday, he had a great game.
Campbell was hot for more than that short stretch. He had a game-high 28 points with 6 assists and 3 rebounds, dominating Oregon’s starting backcourt of Will Richardson, Jermaine Couisnard, Rivaldo Soares, who combined for 15 points on 6-of-24 shooting.
STATEMENT MADE! ✅
Tyger Campbell's career-high 28 points led 1-seed @UCLAMBB to the #Pac12MBB Tourney title game. pic.twitter.com/6fSisYV0PB
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) March 11, 2023
“The way that we’re playing, the pick-and-roll, we thought Tyger could have a big night in our game plan with the coaching staff,” Cronin said. “He was able to get enough shots where he was able to get in a great rhythm. It doesn’t surprise me. He’s a great player, so not shocked at all before you ask me if he was, you know, I know he’s got that game in him. Tonight was his turn. Yesterday was Amari’s turn.”
In some ways, Cronin is the luckiest coach in America.
Campbell could have listened to him earlier this year, when they talked about Campbell’s future options: Turn pro or return to UCLA for his senior year.
“I said, ‘You shouldn’t come back,’” Cronin told me before the season. “Our fans are gonna read this and think I’m crazy, but I said, ‘You shouldn’t come back if you’re gonna be the same guy.’ He said, ‘You don’t want me back?’ I said, no I want you back, but here’s some fatherly advice: If you’re gonna come back, you should come back to try to be great. I don’t want you to come back if you want to be the same guy.”
Campbell was was not the same guy on Friday.
In other ways, Cronin is the unluckiest coach in America.
Why was he forced to turn to Singleton or Campbell and a cast of randoms? Because Bona, the Pac-12 freshman of the Year, hurt his shoulder and would not return. A week after losing Clark for the rest of the season to an Achilles injury, the Bruins cannot bear to lose Bona for even a game. Much is on the line on Saturday in a Pac-12 Tournament title game rematch against Arizona.
David Singleton on what the Bruins told Adem Bona after his injury: "We told him, ‘We got you. Get some rest and be ready for [Saturday]' because I knew we were going to lock in and get it together and get the job done."
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) March 11, 2023
Not that Cronin is letting his worry be known.
“In basketball you get to put somebody else in,” he said. It’s a heck of a deal. You still get to play five on five. So people say, you don’t have this guy or that guy. I mean, it would be different if you didn’t have anybody to put in. We got guys on scholarship for a reason. They practice hard, we prepare ’em for a reason, we try to tell ’em their moment’s going to come. We tell ’em all year, Your moment’s going to come in March and we’re going to need you. So guys gave us big minutes off the bench. And we just worry about defense. If we worry about defense, we worry about playing smart, the ball’s eventually going to go in.”