The possibility made the rounds, players on the verge of something UCLA had not done in a decade talking about another Pac-12 regular-season championship.
“I mean, that’s the reason we came here,” junior guard Jaylen Clark said earlier this week. “I know it ain’t been done since 2013.”
Clark and senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. tried to recall who was on that team. The stars were Shabazz Muhammad, Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson, the Bruins edging Oregon by one game in the conference standings. Everything was a downer from there, Jordan Adams breaking his foot in the Pac-12 tournament and coach Ben Howland getting fired after the Bruins lost by 20 points to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Another Pac-12 championship was UCLA’s for the taking this week. The Bruins could clinch at least a share of the title with a sweep of Utah and Colorado or one victory plus an Arizona loss against Arizona State.
It wasn’t going to be easy. After losing most of a 16-point lead in the second half against Utah, the Bruins turned to the player who continued to emerge as their late-season savior.
Just as he did in helping his team close out recent victories over Oregon and Stanford, Jaquez was everywhere his team needed him to be over the final minutes Thursday night.
He broke a double team with a bounce pass to Clark for a layup. He made a step-back jumper. Then a driving layup.
Finally, most cold-bloodedly, he buried a fadeaway three-pointer with 63 seconds left, sending fans streaming toward the exits inside the Huntsman Center with the fourth-ranked Bruins on their way to a 78-71 victory. Jaquez finished with 23 points while making 10 of 15 shots for the Bruins (24-4 overall, 15-2 Pac-12), who stretched their lead over the Wildcats to two games after Utah had closed within four points with 2½ minutes left.
The Bruins’ bid to move closer to history came in front of one of their all-time greats. Gail Goodrich sat behind the UCLA bench, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer who won two national championships with the Bruins taking in the game after making the four-hour drive from his home in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Faring well this week would come with the bonus of boosting UCLA’s NCAA tournament standing in the wake of the brouhaha that erupted last week when the Bruins were seeded behind Arizona in the early bracket reveal. The selection committee clearly penalized the Bruins for having only four so-called Quadrant 1 victories against top-tier teams compared to the Wildcats’ six.
Victories over Utah and Colorado on the road would both qualify as Quad 1 because the Utes and Buffaloes are both in the top 75 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool that’s one of the metrics used by the selection committee. It didn’t matter that Utah (17-12, 10-8) was without two top players, Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster both out for the game against the Bruins because of leg injuries, taking their combined average of 20.4 points off the board.
Into the void stepped diminutive guard Mike Saunders Jr., whose speed off the bench caused significant problems for UCLA in the early going. Consecutive blow-by layups from Saunders pulled the Utes with 14-12 after they had opened the game colder than the snow-covered grounds outside the arena, making only three of their first 14 shots.
But the Bruins had their own matchup advantage. Freshman center Adem Bona sparked a 12-0 run with three dunks, not bothered in the least by the protective face mask he was wearing after having taken a hit to the face against California last weekend.
Two days after UCLA coach Mick Cronin noted his teams usually needed to scrape their way to wins here, relying heavily on their defense, the Bruins came out scorching on offense. Freshman guard Dylan Andrews made all four of his shots off the bench in the first half and senior point guard Tyger Campbell made four of six shots in leading UCLA to a 43-31 halftime advantage after the Bruins made 61.3% of their shots and four of five three-pointers.
It was an especially welcome breakthrough for Campbell, who had scored in single digits in his last five games. He added a huge three-pointer to give UCLA a 71-64 lead with 2:18 left and finished with 18 points and five assists.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.