TUCSON, Ariz. — It has been six years since UCLA finished its remarkable three-peat: three consecutive league championships followed by three consecutive trips to the Final Four. If it weren’t for John Wooden, those would have been the Bruins’ glory days.
Don’t look now, but UCLA may be turning the corner to greatness again. A team full of freshman that can beat No. 6 Arizona on its home floor certainly has something special.
The Bruins won their first true road game over a ranked team since 2008 in rambunctious McKale Center, 84-73 on Thursday, when the freshman were about a fazed as an owl by nightfall.
“This helps us, getting a signature win on the road,” coach Ben Howland said.
Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and reserve Tony Parker are not babies any more. They had 52 points and 23 rebounds, with slick senior point guard Larry Drew II leading the offense through a Wildcats defense that looked confused and a rotation late at times.
Muhammad turned the game into a Pac-12 coming out party. His 23 points tied for his conference high, and made up for his gaffe prior to last weekend’s Oregon game, when he was late to a team function and did not start in a 76-67 loss.
It was obvious from the outset that Muhammad was in his element. He made a 3-pointer from the left wing on his first shot, less than a minute into the game, to erase the only lead Arizona had, 1-0. He made two mid-range jumpers shortly thereafter, as the Bruins scored 19 of the first 22 points to not only take control of the game but also take the whited-out crowd of 14,617 as far out of the game as the rabid group ever gets.
“When the lights come on and the cameras are on, he really comes to life. He is one hell of a competitor,” Howland said.
Muhammad, who is averaging almost 18 points a game, agreed.
“I love the crowd. When I was hitting my shots, it felt good to quiet the crowd. It’s a huge confidence-builder. This was a great win, and we really needed it. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I didn’t know how rowdy this place was. You see everybody in white. It was so hard to shoot in here,” Muhammad said.
Not so much for the Bruins, who shot 47.8 percent from the field.
“I don’t think anybody can deal with our transition. We have so many athletic wings. Larry pushed the ball really well, and when we push the ball, we get really good things on offense,” Muhammad said.
“From a defensive perspective, we had no answer for them,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Their defense is what pleased Howland, that and point guard Drew.
Arizona shot only 38.4 percent from the field, and made a season-low 5-of-24 from 3-point range. Some of the 3-pointers came late, when Arizona had to force the pace. But most came with athletic defenders nearby.
With so many new players, UCLA opened the season playing a zone defense, just to give the newcomers a feel of what the college game is like. They gradually have phased in the man-to-man defense that was a trademark of Howland’s Final Four teams, and they have held four of seven Pac-12 opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. If these guys play defense, look out, because they can score in so many ways.
“We’re doing a better job of extending screens, trailing the play, all the little things that we didn’t do early, because it is all new. Until you get drilled, which we did early in the season, you don’t learn as quickly. Our traps in the low post are better. Our hedges are better,” Howland said.
“With a young team like that, it is especially critical that you get as much practice time as you can get, but we’re learning on the fly and getting better.”
Maybe those preseason predictions that had UCLA winning the Pac-12 even with the youngsters will prove true.
UCLA (16-4, 6-1) moved within a half-game of No. 16 Oregon in the Pac-12, while Arizona (16-2, 4-2) dropped into a third-place tie with Washington. UCLA dropped out of the national rankings after Saturday’s home loss, but used it as motivation.
“We hate losing,” said Adams, who missed time with leg cramps but still had 15 points. “We haven’t lost two in a row all year, so we wanted to really prove a point.”
It was not much fun in practice this week because of the Oregon loss. The Bruins watched every second of the game again on tape. Adams was sick at practice on Tuesday, and another player lost his lunch the same day. It continued Thursday, when Travis Wear missed the second half of the game with a concussion.
With Drew operating, the loss was felt less. Drew, who leads the Pac-12 with an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 5 to 1, had only seven points, but he had nine assists and only two turnovers, maintaining his composure when Arizona went to a full-court press in the final four minutes after cutting the deficit to 70-64.
“He dominated the game,” Miller said.
As did the freshmen. It looks like nothing but baby blue skies ahead.
Meanwhile, it’s the Wildcats who are due for some self-examination.
“When you have a loss, sometimes you can get the attention of your
team and everyone associated with your team to get better in (certain)
areas,” Miller said.