February 25, 2024

A month after he didn’t speak to reporters, remaining in the locker room after a loss to California, UCLA coach Mick Cronin couldn’t stop talking.

About his team’s intense defense in the first half (“We had 10 deflections quickly,” he said.) About the growth of freshman Aday Mara (“He’s getting better.”) About freshman Brandon Williams defending prolific Golden Bears scorer Jaylon Tyson (“Toughness, defense — he gives us a fighter and a scrapper.”)

And, most notably, about his team’s perseverance in tough situations. (“You just see we’ve become a different team, right?”)

Everything about these Bruins feels different from a month ago, not to mention the season’s early going when they failed to get the late stop, grab the late rebound or make the late shot that would help them prevail in taut games.

All those things happened Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion during UCLA’s 61-60 victory over Cal that prompted Cronin to gush for nine minutes about his team afterward.

“Guys showed unbelievable resilience today,” Cronin said after the Bruins (13-11 overall, 8-5 Pac-12) posted a fifth consecutive victory and seventh in their last eight games.

It wasn’t easy.

With the Bruins stuck in an epic offensive funk in which they had made one of 10 shots during a late stretch, center Adem Bona and guard Dylan Andrews each made shots in the final 49 seconds to help their team prevail in their final game here as members of the Pac-12.

“It’s a tough game where we could’ve folded,” Bona said. “Earlier in the season, we would’ve been having a different conversation right now.

“You can see the growth in the team to stay tough, to fight hard even when the shots are not going in.”

Once trailing by 14 points early in the second half, Cal befuddled the Bruins with a 2-3 zone and slowly chipped away at the deficit. The Golden Bears (10-14, 6-7) surged ahead 55-53 on Fardaws Aimaq’s putback with 61 seconds left.

Bona countered with a jump hook in which he was fouled with 49 seconds remaining, making the free throw to give UCLA a 56-55 lead.

Aimaq helped Cal retake the lead with another putback before Andrews, who made only three of 14 shots to that point, buried a midrange jumper with 25 seconds left to put the Bruins back ahead.

“You gotta keep your confidence and believe that the ball is gonna go in and you’re gonna make the right play to finish the game out and that’s what we did,” UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic said.

Tyson (16 points on six-for-12 shooting) missed a layup and Stefanovic grabbed his 13th rebound — a career high — and was fouled with 16.4 seconds to go. Stefanovic made both free throws, Cal missed a three-pointer and UCLA’s Sebastian Mack grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made one of two free throws, rendering Cal’s three-pointer with 0.1 seconds left meaningless.

The Bruins could exhale after making just 28.1% of their shots from the field in the second half, including two of eight three-pointers.

“My message after the game was,” Cronin said, “good teams win when the ball doesn’t go in.”

Bona finished with 13 points and Stefanovic and Andrews had 12 apiece for the Bruins.

UCLA’s 35-24 halftime lead came courtesy of stifling defense that forced eight Cal turnovers and often gave the Golden Bears trouble just getting the ball into the frontcourt.

The Bruins enjoyed several developments beyond the early lead. Andrews continued to have some success with his midrange jumpers and Mara solidified his role as Bona’s primary backup with a putback dunk, a few nifty passes and some agile defense.

And so Cronin lingered afterward to talk in an outdated weight room in the basement of this old building that he might never set foot in again, his young team on a new trajectory after so much heartache.

“The key is, you’ve got to stay together through the fire,” Cronin said.

“A lot of people start running when that fire starts, but if you recruit good kids, they’ll stay together, especially because they know no matter how much people see my emotion or whatever, they know I care about them and we’re here to make them better.”

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