Just keep finding a way.
That was the mandate for UCLA on Thursday night, as the fifth-ranked Bruins entered their Pac-12 Conference showdown with Arizona State on the nation’s longest winning streak among major conference teams.
Extending the streak would keep the midseason fun going while preventing the Sun Devils from tying the conference standings. It would also take UCLA halfway to a desert sweep that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said could jump the team to a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Everything stayed in the game after the Bruins’ final breakout, a 74-62 victory at the Desert Financial Arena that was courtesy of more late gutsy play.
Choked for most of a night that saw him miss two layups and back-to-back free throws, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. up for a three-pointer and a turnaround jumper that gave his team a 70-62 lead.
Those shots helped carry a game-ending 16-2 run for the Bruins, who desperately needed the additional offense with Tyger Campbell carrying such a heavy load. Campbell led his team with 22 points while making seven of 11 shots.
While Campbell clenched his forehead with clenched fists in honor of the 14e consecutive win, UCLA guard David Singleton, who had 21 points, held his hand to his ear as he watched the silent student area.
Jaquez was able to smile after taking only four of twelve shots for nine points.
UCLA (17-2 overall, 8-0 Pac-12) withstood a barrage of three-pointers from Arizona State, who made nine of 22, including one by Frankie Collins that gave the Sun Devils (15-4, 6 -2 ) a 60-58 lead before UCLA began its late push.
In the second half, the Bruins continued to find the energy to come back.
Trailing by as much as six points, the Bruins swung into a 58–57 lead with 6:34 left after freshman center Adem Bona made one of two free throws after a Singleton corner three-pointer tied the score.
UCLA opened the second half with an old-fashioned Bruin blitz, rolling away eight consecutive points to stretch to a 38-35 lead. Campbell made a layup in which he fouled to complete a three-point play, Singleton buried a three-pointer, and Jaylen Clark maximized his stealing with a putback basket.
Heading into this perilous journey, the Bruins found themselves in an almost identical situation to when they faced the Arizona schools last season. They had the same record of two losses and were only two places lower than a year ago.
UCLA hoped the similarities ended there.
The Bruins lost both games, including a three-overtime clunker against an Arizona State team that had more than twice as many losses as wins at the time. The setbacks were among the factors that dropped the Bruins to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
To upset Arizona State in the final game, it probably needed success in one: three-point accuracy. That was a winning formula for the only two teams to beat UCLA before Thursday. Illinois made 48% of his shots from long range and Baylor’s LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler had combined eight of 16 two days later.
UCLA joined this game with its own checklist. Near the top, more production squeezed out of a bank held scoreless against Colorado last weekend. That mission was doubly important, especially given that the Arizona state rotation goes 10 deep.
It didn’t help the Bruins that freshman guard Amari Bailey missed a sixth consecutive game due to discomfort in his left foot, forcing Singleton, normally the team’s sixth man, to remain the starter.
It was a kneeless night for UCLA’s Will McClendon and Mac Etienne, who dropped their knee braces for the first time all season as a final farewell to the injuries that cost them both last season. But McClendon’s struggles at long range continued as he made a three-point attempt and Etienne was limited to an eight-second cameo appearance in the first half.
UCLA freshman guard Dylan Andrews sparked off the bench with five quick runs in the first half.
A record Sun Devils student section of 5,213 unleashed its fury before the tip, chanting “F – the Bruins!” The decibel level soared when Desmond Cambridge Jr. sank half court during the halftime buzzer, giving the home team a 35–30 lead.
Things were much quieter about an hour later as the Bruins walked into a tunnel below them, arms up in celebration.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.