Alexander: Whatever happens, UCLA basketball perseveres

Alexander: Whatever happens, UCLA basketball perseveres

LAS VEGAS — It almost doesn’t matter, does it?

No matter what happens, no matter who gets hurt or whose shot isn’t falling or whatever else might be happening, as long as No. 10 and No. 24 and friends are on the floor, things will be fine for UCLA.

The Bruins lost another key player with 16: 14 left in the second half of Friday night’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinal against Oregon, when Adem Bona, their 6-foot-10 freshman big man, fell on his left shoulder with what might have been either a dislocation or a separation. The Bruins were leading 44-36 at the time, and moments later it was 44-41.

And then Tyger Campbell, the aforementioned No. 10, began to channel Steph Curry, while Jaime Jaquez Jr., No. 24 in your game program, seemingly did everything else. And not only was there no crisis, but the top-seeded Bruins pulled away from fourth-seeded Oregon in the final 10 minutes for a resounding 75-56 victory and a berth in Saturday night’s championship game.

Bona had set a tone in the opening minutes, blocking Rivaldo Soares’ shot attempt for the first of his two blocks. He played 6-foot-11 Ducks center N’Faly Dante tough, having a large hand in Dante’s 3-for-11 shooting and eight points and, if not shutting down the paint, at least making things difficult.

When he left, trainer in tow and gingerly holding his left arm to protect his shoulder, others stepped up. That’s become the Bruin Way. Redshirt senior Kenneth Nwuba, also 6-10, blocked two shots himself in 8: 13. David Singleton, 3 for 3 from the 3-point line for the night, knocked down an exclamation point of a 3-pointer from the right wing during a 17-6 run. Dylan Andrews, Will McClendon and Abramo Canka provided key minutes.

Campbell, after missing a 3-pointer shortly after Bona’s exit, made five of his next six and 6 of 9 in the final 16 minutes, 2 for 4 from 3-point territory and 4 of 5 mid-range jumpers, and added two assists to touch off a surge that had the UCLA fans in T-Mobile Arena roaring. The crowd fed off the surge, the team fed off the crowd’s energy, and the Ducks were soon to be toast.

“I watch a lot of Chris Paul highlights. Steve Nash is one of my favorite players,” Campbell said. “(They’re) just guys that kind of mastered the mid-range. So when the team just gives me those shots, I just try to take ’em confidently and try to knock ’em down.”

Meanwhile, Jaquez grabbed four of his 10 rebounds in that span and a key and-one followed by a top-of-the-key 3-pointer at the end of that 17-6 run.

“It’s why (those) guys got scholarships,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said afterward. ” I told you last year I became a hockey fan watching my buddy Eric Johnson (of the Colorado Avalanche). I didn’t know the rules. So they actually have to play a man down. In basketball, you get to put somebody else in. It’s a heck of a deal. You still get to play five-on-five.

“So people say, you don’t have this guy or that guy. I mean, it would be different if you didn’t have anybody to put in. We got guys on scholarship for a reason. They practice hard, we prepare ’em for a reason, we try to tell ’em their moment’s going to come. We tell ’em all year, ‘Your moment’s going to come in March and we’re going to need you.’ So guys gave us big minutes off the bench. And we just worry about defense. If we worry about defense, we worry about playing smart, the ball’s eventually going to go in.”

Almost as good as an effective penalty kill, eh?

As we’ve noted, Cronin picked up – or at least refined – something else from hockey, the intentional vagueness where injuries are concerned. A UCLA spokesman had informed the Pac-12 Network that Bona injured his left shoulder, but after going to the locker room Bona came back out and was on the bench, with no bandage or wrap on the shoulder.

And when a questioner had the temerity to ask Cronin if there were an update, he responded: “Do you think I would tell you? No, I have no idea. He looks good in the locker room. But, no.”

So, “upper-body injury” it is. Until we hear otherwise, evidently, Bona’s day to day. On top of that, the Bruins are also without Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark after his similarly vague “lower leg injury” last Saturday kept him out of this tournament and possibly the next one.

But the mindset that allows the Bruins to shrug off such adversity is the same mindset that contributes to their ability to take over a game down the stretch.

“We’ve had a lot of veterans on this team,” Jaquez said. “We had Adem go down, and then slide in Kenny (Nwuba) right there and he had huge plays for us, big rebounds, big blocks. We’ve just been in these situations before. Four years, you get a lot of experience. We got a great point guard right here (Campbell) and he’s our closer. We get him the ball, he brings it up the court, he takes care of it for us and gets us all in the right position and, gets our offense in the right position to make plays and defensively as well.”

So the Bruins, now 29-4, have their ambitions right in front of them Saturday night. A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is still there for the taking, as well as the opportunity to stay in the West and, if they take care of business, come right back to T-Mobile Arena for the Sweet 16 in two weeks.

“It would mean that all this hard work paid off,” Jaquez said.