Gold: Did it take the Baby Bruins one game to grow up?
With just more than 9 minutes left in UCLA’s 86-53 win over 15-seeded UNC Asheville on Thursday night, the Bruins turned into the Harlem Globetrotters.
Was that Will McClendon flashing a little Curly Neal, pump-faking and then splitting through three Bulldog defenders to find Mac Etienne for the inside dunk? Was that Etienne grabbing a board and leading a fast break to Jaime Jaquez Jr., who pushed it to Amari Bailey before he found Dylan Andrews for the breakaway layup?
Was that Etienne with a baby hook? And a dunk!? And another jump hook?!?
This wasn’t a basketball game, it was a prophecy. Mick Cronin told us to hold tight. He told us he wasn’t sweating it. He made it clear the Bruins have reinforcements.
And if he’s going to be this right, the sky is the limit for his team.
Of course, Thursday’s thrilling win was not all about UCLA’s fantastic finish.
The Bruins absolutely blitzed the Bulldogs out of the gate, leaving them shell-shocked with a 14-0 run to start the game.
Four different UCLA starters scored the team’s first 14 points, featuring a pair of Kenneth Nwuba dunks and capped off by a David Singleton 3-pointer.
When Nwuba made a jumper with 8 minutes, 53 seconds left, the Bruins went up by 21 and they never looked back.
“Tonight is not indicative of the season they had,” Cronin said. “They ran into a buzz saw tonight. We don’t take losing well at UCLA. We spell fun W-I-N. We lost our last game. These guys took it personal. You saw how they came out tonight. Our defensive intensity and our deflections early in the game I think really rattled them. They could never really get comfortable. We did a great job on their shooters. Jones only made one three, Fletcher maybe one three, Drew Pember only made one. That was our big focus tonight.”
It's just three minutes, but the moment looks awfully big for North Carolina Asheville.
UCLA is up 14-0, has made all five shots and is playing lockdown defense. Mick Cronin had his team ready.
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) March 17, 2023
Cronin made it clear UCLA took its loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament title game personally, and probably also the doubt that ensued between that defeat and the loss of Jaylen Clark in the regular-season finale and Adem Bona in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
He almost sneered scoffed at the idea that the Bruins were down, if not out.
And Thursday made it clear why.
“I give them a ton of credit,” UNC Asheville coach Mike Morrell said. “They were the aggressors early, and they took it to us. You got to give them credit for that because they were not going to be caught sleeping. I thought they were really good defensively. They just kind of really pushed us around all over the floor.”
It would have been one thing had UCLA simply plugged a leak with Nwuba and Etienne and Andrews and McClendon and instead had ridden into a Round of 32 matchup with Northwestern on the backs of stalwarts like Jaquez and Tyger Campbell and Amari Bailey.
Instead, the Bruins got ample production from their backups and backups-turned-starters.
Nwuba, a senior who averages fewer than one point per game in his career, had a career-high 10 points, as did the redshirt-freshman Etienne. They combined to shoot 9-for-9 from the field and looked years ahead than they did just last Saturday in Las Vegas in a 2-point title game loss to Arizona. Against the Wildcats, thrust into major playing time in Bona’s absence, the lightly used post players combined for 3 points in 34 minutes. At times, they appeared completely unprepared for the moment, almost lost on the floor.
Against the Bulldogs, they were different players. Seasoned, reliable, steady.
“What does it feel like? Amazing,” Nwuba said, smiling. ” I mean, just like my message every year. When your name is called, be ready to play. Whether the contribution of yourself to the team, just be able to trust the coaching staff. Just like he said, toughness and togetherness, that’s how we win the game. Like a group game; it takes all guys to win, not just one man.
“I will say it felt great.”
kenny nwuba: best center in ucla history? sound off in the mentions, i'm not reading them anyway
— David Woods (@daviddavidwoods) March 17, 2023
Great, but, Cronin said, not surprising.
“Kenny doesn’t surprise me,” Cronin said. “He’s been around. He got off to a great start this year. That injury he had against — was that Cal? A weird injury against Cal to his hip. You see he’s blocking shots in the Pac-12 tournament and again tonight. He’s got his bounce back in his step. I mean, it doesn’t surprise me. But him and Mac are nine for nine.”
Now the question is, where do the Bruins go from here? Does this one performance change their ceiling? For me, it does.
If Bona comes back healthy against either Northwestern, or, potentially, Gonzaga, UCLA should feel comfortable mixing Nwuba and Etienne into the fold for a solid 3-to-5-minute stretch. With the kind of guard play the Bruins boast between Campbell and Singleton, not to mention the springy and athletic Andrews and McClendon, the Bruins should feel like they can go 9-deep going forward. That’s a game changer.
No, Nwuba, Etienne, Andrews and McClendon don’t equal Jaylen Clark, but it’s a start.
And it could lead to a big finish, if the Bruins keep up their intensity.
“(Today’s result) doesn’t surprise me because we lost our last game,” Cronin said. “These guys are trained. We don’t take losing lightly. Amari is a freshman. He knows how I am. He’s from Chicago. We play to win at UCLA. It’s not okay to lose. I don’t care who’s hurt, who’s out, who you’re playing, where the game’s at, what the refs are doing with the whistle; you got to find a way to win.
“When we lost Saturday, I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was going to help us. There’s no question it was going to help us. I know these guys. Like, I know how upset this guy was that we didn’t win that game Saturday. He was as upset as I’ve ever seen him. So that helps.”