They were down double digits when the signs started to emerge, the entire UCLA bench standing to applaud freshman Brandon Williams for another fearless play off the bench.
Over the pulsating minutes that followed, the Bruins’ belief could be seen in the smallest of gestures. A fist pump. A nod. A smile.
All of it saying the same thing: We’ve got this.
Overwhelmed and deflated so many times late in close games this season, the Bruins finally rose to the moment Wednesday night inside Desert Financial Arena.
Coming back from down 15 points only to nearly unravel once more, UCLA closed out Arizona State with a 68-66 victory that said something revealing about this young team.
It’s growing up.
“I’d say that we’re starting to build back up our dogfight,” freshman guard Sebastian Mack said after the Bruins withstood Arizona State’s 11 three-pointers and four-point lead with four minutes left to notch their most improbable triumph of the season. “You know, our dog within us.”
Benched to start the second half for failing to heed the game plan, Mack was the primary protagonist in handing the Sun Devils their first home loss. He banked in a driving layup and followed a steal with another layup to give the Bruins a three-point lead with 51 seconds left, earning chest bumps from Adem Bona and Devin Williams going into a timeout.
Things got more than a bit frightening for UCLA after Lazar Stefanovic lost the ball for a turnover and Arizona State made two free throws. Ahead by just one point, the Bruins nearly turned the ball over again before Will McClendon was fouled and made both free throws with 5.8 seconds left, giving UCLA a 68-65 cushion.
The Bruins fouled the Sun Devils’ Alonzo Gaffney on purpose with two seconds left and he made one of two free throws. UCLA was able to inbound the ball to Dylan Andrews, who dribbled out the clock while breaking into a wide smile in celebration of his team’s perseverance.
“There’s no give-up,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “I’m not allowing that — there’s never going to be give-up.”
After Cronin said his team couldn’t consider it a turning point until UCLA won multiple games in a row, maybe the Bruins (8-10, 3-4 Pac-12) are there after a second consecutive triumph.
UCLA prevailed in part thanks to a chippy second half full of technical fouls, four going against the Sun Devils (10-7, 4-2) to only one on the Bruins.
Deadpanned Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley: “We were the bad guys. I’m sure no one else said anything except us.”
Said Cronin when asked about his team keeping its composure: “I was happy with it. Very happy with it.”
Stefanovic scored 18 points — thanks in part to making seven of eight technical free throws — Williams added 13 points and five rebounds, and Mack finished with all 11 of his points in the second half after relentlessly driving into the paint to make layups and draw fouls.
“We went to try to spread them into attacking and use their aggression against them,” Cronin said of Mack’s approach. “He did a great job.”
The same could be said for Bona after he tallied nine points, six rebounds, five assists and a career-high seven blocks before fouling out, not realizing the last statistic until he scanned a box score bounding out of the locker room.
“Wooo, I got seven blocks!” Bona said excitedly.
It was his only steal that might have been the biggest turning point.
After UCLA fell behind 39-24 early in the second half, things suddenly tilted heavily in the Bruins’ favor several minutes later when Bona snatched the ball from Arizona State’s Adam Miller, leading to Stefanovic absorbing a flagrant foul in transition that sent him to the court in a painful heap.
Players from both teams exchanged heated words. Bona was assessed a technical foul and Arizona State’s Shawn Phillips Jr. was given two technicals and ejected. Stefanovic made all four free throws and UCLA was down 49-47, if only for the moment.
The Bruins also were awarded the ball and McClendon buried a three-pointer to put the Bruins ahead for the first time.
UCLA’s advantage eventually reached three points before Bona picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with 7:27 left. The Bruins then fueled five straight Arizona State points with back-to-back turnovers, forcing Cronin to call a timeout.
The lead kept vacillating until the Mack attack led to four points in 21 seconds. Ballgame.
“I was really just doing whatever it takes to win,” Mack said.
On a chilly night in the desert, it became a mantra for a team that found a way.