Middleweight Bout: UCLA Finally Shows Fight Against Washington

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

One Thursday evening, two buzzer beauties.

Only a few hours after Illinois stunned No. 1 ranked Indiana with a layup at the buzzer, UCLA guard Larry Drew II came off a left-elbow screen to nail a left-elbow jumper for the win over Washington.

With leads changing back and forth deep into the second half, UCLA and Washington exemplified the challenges of each of their seasons: consistency. Tonight, the Bruins (17-6, 7-3 PAC-12) exhibited the late game fight PAC-12 basketball fans, and more importantly, UCLA fans, have been waiting for.

The Bruins were once again led by hopeful PAC-12 player of the year Shabazz Muhammad, who’s aggressiveness on both the offensive and defensive ends resulted in a 59-57 win over the Huskies. Even though PAC-12 wins are the most valuable statistic for teams during February, UCLA needed a gritty, hard fought victory more than anything else.

Muhammad finished with 22 points and eight rebounds for UCLA, after two straight losses to conference opponents. On Jan. 30, the Bruins failed to beat inter-city foe USC at home in overtime. Thursday night’s victory was crucial for UCLA heading into the final portion of conference play which includes Stanford and No. 7 ranked Arizona.

Though UCLA struggled to find momentum early in the second half, they did so efficiently and without turnovers. The Bruins finished with only 10 giveaways to match Washington’s 19. In order to have any success in the PAC-12 tournament, the Bruins will have to exhibit an identical fight as Thursday night.

Washington still far away from causing any damage to the elite programs in the PAC-12, as turnovers and a slow-moving offense doomed the Huskies late in the second half. The Bruins’ speed and endurance showed their ability to wear teams down in transition, without sacrificing control over the momentum of the game.

It’s still hard to tell if the Bruins have earned their place with the elite programs in the PAC-12 — Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State — but they certainly made a case against the Huskies. With Oregon slipping because of injuries, there is no better time for the Bruins to move up in the conference standings.

So, can UCLA repeat tonight’s performance against the rest of the PAC-12? The answer is yes, and the key is Muhammed. When Muhammed brings energy and excitement, the entire team responds, and the fickle Los Angeles crowd joins in. With two minutes remaining, a steal by Drew and an uncontested slam by Muhammed completely stole the momentum from the Huskies and returned it to UCLA.

The Bruins may have struggled in conference play early this season, but they are far from eliminated from PAC-12 championship contention.

Follow John Engel on Twitter: @engelsportsguy

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