February 23, 2024

They’re growing up.

Coming back from down 15 points only to nearly unravel, the young UCLA Bruins finally closed out a taut game in pulsating fashion, pulling out a 68-66 victory over Arizona State on Wednesday night at Desert Financial Arena.

Benched to start the second half, freshman guard Sebastian Mack was the primary protagonist in the final minutes. He banked in a driving layup and followed a steal with another layup to give the Bruins a three-point lead.

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 lead.

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 before celebrating.

Coach Mick Cronin said his team couldn’t consider it a turning point until UCLA had won multiple games in a row, so maybe the Bruins (8-10 overall, 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 to only one on the Bruins.

Stefanovic scored 18 points, largely on the strength of technical free throws, Brandon Williams added 13 off the bench and Mack finished with 11.

After trailing by as many as 15 points early in the second half, things were tilting heavily in UCLA’s favor when an Adem Bona steal led to Stefanovic absorbing a flagrant foul in transition that sent him to the court in a painful heap.

Players from both teams started jawing at one another. 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 got the ball and McClendon buried a three-pointer to put the Bruins ahead for the first time in the game.

UCLA’s advantage would eventually reach three points before Bona picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with 7:27 left. Williams then fueled five straight Arizona State points with back-to-back turnovers, forcing Cronin to call timeout.

In another strong showing across the board, Bona tallied nine points, six rebounds, five assists and a career-high seven blocks) and the Bruins withstood 11 three-pointers from the Sun Devils (10-7, 4-2) in their first home defeat of the season.

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