Any doubts about whether they would be a top team were left in Las Vegas.
Wither under pressure? For a month now, the UCLA Bruins have made the plays they couldn’t resist in losses to Illinois and Baylor.
Can’t get the necessary stops? These Bruins produce more steal than crime drama.
Not tough enough? Did you see Jaylen Clark in the final moments on Saturday?
About an hour after being punched in the face by Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, leaving him with a swollen lower lip that briefly forced him out of the bout, Clark delivered the knockout blow.
UCLA’s top defenseman anticipated a pass to the wing and reached out his left arm to poke the ball into the open field. Clark collected his steel near midcourt and ran to the basket for a breakaway dunk which he celebrated by flexing as he roared with delight.
“I looked up and saw there were 20 seconds left and we were about eight, nine,” said Clark. “It is over.”
It was clear then that the Bruins’ trip to the East Coast was a roaring success. One only had to listen.
In the last minute, a “UCLA!” song filled Madison Square Garden. Bruins fans, heavily outnumbered by their Wildcats counterparts, had the final say after No. 16 UCLA secured a 63-53 victory over No. 13 Kentucky, completing a two-game sweep of nationally ranked teams.
Point guard Tyger Campbell hit the ball high off the field in excitement after the Bruins (10-2) withstood what coach Mick Cronin called “a carnage” to earn their seventh straight win. Cronin flashed a sign of fours to fans heading onto the field after his team’s defense caused the Wildcats to miss their final 11 shots while holding them scoreless for the final 4 minutes and 31 seconds.
“The Illinois game was the best thing that ever happened to us – it made us grow, just the embarrassment factor,” Clark said of losing a 15-point lead in the second half to the Fighting Illini in front of a neutral crowd deluged with Orange. “We feel like they walked into the West Coast and just took it over, so for March Madness reasons we knew we couldn’t come here and afford to lose games if we wanted to get placed high.”
After a 27-point blowout from No. 20 Maryland with another stellar performance against the Wildcats (7-3), UCLA is looking to move into the top 10 rankings and move up a few spots on the seedlines of NCAA tournament prognosticators.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. played as a first-team All-American against the Wildcats, recording 19 points with 12 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Clark was strong across the board with 15 points, eight rebounds, four steals and two assists for the Bruins, who forced 18 turnovers and outscored the Wildcats, 45.8% to 32.8%.
By repeatedly revealing a combination of stifling defense and reliable shooting, the Bruins have shown they have multiple ways to win.
“You have to score hard,” Cronin said. “So we’ve reached a point where our guys are embracing that. They know we’re going to win the game with defense [and] if we have a great night offensively, we’ll win with 20. But we’re going to win one way or another.’
There was a lot of drama as Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler made a jumper to pull his team in 55-53 with 4:31 left. It would be the Wildcats’ last points.
Campbell (15 points) countered with a hard floater in the lane and reserve forward Mac Etienne and Clark each added a free throw before Campbell made a driving layup to increase the lead to 61-53. Clark’s steal and dunk were the exclamation mark.
New York native Etienne also blocked a shot from Tshiebwe and grabbed five rebounds to help his dirt-ridden team in front of friends and family. Tshiebwe’s 16 rebounds failed to give his team a lead in that department after the Bruins grabbed one more rebound than the Wildcats.
Clark said his team was driven by the knowledge that this is likely the last run for the remaining players from the 2021 Final Four, alongside freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona, who could make it to the NBA after one college season.
Along the way, they try to enjoy every moment. Shaking off the rain and bitter cold that greeted them here, the Bruins toured the ice rink and giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, next to the original Saks Fifth Avenue.
The highlight came Saturday night. Cheers from the UCLA locker room could be heard far down a corridor in the old arena, a soundtrack preferred to the eloquent diatribe Cronin delivered last month after losing to Baylor. His team has not lost since.
“It just put an edge on our shoulder,” Jaquez said of the Vegas losses. “We had a lot to prove on this journey, we knew we dropped two in Vegas and we knew we’re a much more capable team than we’ve shown. We were just on a mission to get better every day and prepare for this. , and just show the world what we can do.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.