LAS VEGAS -- UCLA's skill level has never been in question this season, but as an underlying level of resilience and grittiness has emerged, the Bruins have become a more and more intriguing team. The blue-collar Bruins emerged again in the nick of time on Thursday as UCLA came from 15 down in the second half to advance to the Pac-12 semifinals via an 80-75 win over Arizona State.
This season has been a series of transitions for the Bruins, first to integrate several star freshmen into the mix, then changing the plan on the fly with the departures of two expected rotation players, and finally into a curious balance of precociousness and skilled efficiency, with players like Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad finding better and better ways to work in concert with the team's old guard.
More often than not this season in Pac-12 play, the Bruins have been able to play to their strengths while minimizing the exploitation of their weaknesses, but this game with the Sun Devils was different. UCLA willed its way back into the contest against a tiring Arizona State team that had won in overtime yesterday. The Bruins scored 22 second-half points in the paint, with Muhammad and others feasting around the rim despite the presence of 7-footer Jordan Bachynski. The Bruins also grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the second half (out of 18 available), with Muhammad alone accounting for four.
Muhammad, who was playing in front of a large contingent of family and friends from his high school days here, enjoyed the hard-work way in which the Bruins got to the finish line.
"It felt good. The Wears, David and Travis, did a really good job boxing out [along with myself]," Muhammad said. "We were really scrappy, and I think that's why we ended up winning the game."
In the corridor outside the Bruins' locker room, head coach Ben Howland talked some about the progression of his team, and how much they have improved as the season went along. He singled out Muhammad, especially in terms of his improvement on defense and reading screens, as a player who has grown into a much more well-rounded player than the one that was part of the early-season flailing Bruins. Howland seems to have enjoyed the process, which didn't seem possible several months ago.
"These guys are used to winning, so it's about 'What do we have to do to win, coach?', Howland said. "I haven't had a better group of guys to coach in my tenure at UCLA. These guys have been absolutely fantastic, coachable, listening has been unbelievable. So fun."
After their grit got them back level with the Sun Devils, it was a few doses of good old-fashioned skill that eventually separated the two teams. Travis Wear hit two jumpers down the stretch, the second on a nice pick-and-pop with Larry Drew II, while the Bruins dodged two open looks from the arc from Sun Devils sharpshooter Jonathan Gilling. In a Pac-12 as balanced as this league's season has been, one or two extra plays going your way is usually more than enough. Howland knew his team was a bit fortunate to advance, but he also saw the promise in how his team came back to win again.
"We're really skilled," he said. "When we add [the grittiness] to the skill part and we do them both, then we're pretty good."