The final minutes used to be a scary stretch for UCLA’s young players.
Whether they were outrebounded, outscored or outsmarted by more veteran counterparts, the Bruins almost always found a way to falter through the season’s first two months.
There was a two-point loss to Marquette. A four-point setback against Gonzaga. A nine-point clunker against California.
All of which has made what has happened since even more remarkable.
Need a clutch basket? Dylan Andrews comes through.
How about a steal in the backcourt? Sebastian Mack is your guy.
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A defensive rebound? Lazar Stefanovic snags it once again.
The Bruins coalesced down the stretch Saturday night, winning the final push in a game of wild momentum swings. Having built an early 18-point lead only to trail by halftime, UCLA prevailed with a fittingly crazy coda in which the Bruins ran off nine consecutive points on the way to a 71-63 victory over Oregon at Pauley Pavilion.
“Our guys have just learned to compete against older players,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after a team relying heavily on seven freshmen and three sophomores logged its third consecutive victory and fifth in its last six games.
The fun and electricity is back inside the Bruins’ home arena.
So is the success.
Looking lost three weeks ago after a 46-point beatdown against Utah, UCLA (11-11 overall, 6-5 Pac-12) is suddenly only 1½ games out of first place in the conference standings after knocking Oregon (15-7, 7-4) into second behind front-runner Arizona.
Continuing to elevate his own play, not to mention his team, Andrews propelled UCLA with five points in its late push that started with the Bruins holding a 62-61 lead. After Mack made two free throws, Andrews swished a three-pointer and the Bruins got the ball back when Mack came up with a steal in the backcourt that led to an Oregon foul and two more free throws.
By the time Andrews buried a jumper with 46 seconds left, UCLA was ahead by 10 points and the only thing left to determine was the final margin.
For the surging Bruins, closing time was closeout time against the same Oregon team that had beaten them by five in late December in Eugene.
“We realized we just needed to be calm and be relaxed, and be a team,” Mack said, “and we’d be able to get through it.”
Andrews continued his recent spectacular play with 21 points and seven assists to go with just two turnovers, capitalizing on pick-and-roll coverage that repeatedly gave him open midrange shots. Mack fought through a bothersome toe injury to score 16 points and Stefanovic added a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
There was a crackling energy inside the building with a season-high crowd of 8,723 that included basketball luminaries Jim Harrick, Swen Nater, Jamaal Wilkes and Robert Horry. They were treated to what has become a winning formula for the Bruins, who committed only seven turnovers and outrebounded their third consecutive opponent thanks in part to 11 offensive rebounds.
“You get more possessions than your opponent, you don’t need to be an econ major at UCLA to figure out you’ve got a better chance to win,” Cronin said, “but that takes effort, you know, to take care of the ball, to turn them over and to outrebound them, so I just think we’re learning what winning effort is.”
With UCLA center Adem Bona on the bench in foul trouble early in the second half, backup big man Aday Mara was literally in the middle of his team’s 9-0 push that gave it a 57-48 lead. Mara scored off two alley-oop passes from Andrews, showing how he might be a future force in the lob game.
“Being a seven-footer, he can come off the screen and just get to the basket,” Andrews said, “and you can throw it anywhere, he’ll grab it and put it right back in the basket.”
The run ended only when Mara and Mack, fighting for a rebound, accidentally scored for Oregon in the basketball equivalent of an own goal.
Oregon arrived much later than it wanted to before the game, the team bus pulling up to the arena after getting snarled in traffic related to an L.A. visit from President Biden.
By the time it was over, the Ducks might have wished they kept going.
They fell to a sharper and more connected team, UCLA rising to every moment that mattered. What was the best part for the Bruins?
“Winning and being together as a unit,” Mack said. “I’m loving it right now.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.