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For the briefest of moments, Peyton Watson was beaten.
Arizona’s Justin Kier saw the opening and drove toward the basket for what looked like a sure layup. The Wildcats guard released the ball only for it to meet an unexpected fate, the shot swatted from behind by an outstretched hand of UCLA’s impossibly long-armed freshman.
Kier tumbled to the court along the baseline in disbelief. Watson hovered over his counterpart for a few menacing beats, his lingering presence saying it all.
The Bruins were tougher. The Bruins were savvier. The Bruins were better.
UCLA fans savored it all Tuesday night, roaring and waving tubular balloons behind one basket during what turned into a lengthy celebration in their return to Pauley Pavilion after being locked out of their home arena for nearly two months.
The seventh-ranked Bruins rewarded their faithful with a dazzling display during a 75-59 win over third-ranked Arizona, holding the Wildcats to a season low for points while allowing fans to crank up the decibel level anew with every defensive stop.
The calendar may have read late January, but the intensity level was unquestionably March, the Bruins locked in as if their season might end with a loss.
“By far, I thought, our most spirited 40 minutes of the year,” coach Mick Cronin said after his team won its sixth consecutive game in the series with the Wildcats.
A crowd of 11,268 rarely had a moment to catch its breath as the Bruins (14-2 overall, 6-1 Pac-12) moved into a tie alongside the Wildcats (16-2, 6-1) in the conference standings while holding the tiebreaker.
Did the Bruins show they’re the team to beat in the Pac-12?
“Of course,” guard Jules Bernard said after making seven of 11 shots on the way to 15 points. “We have obviously a talented team, but I think to come out and prove that we have the energy and fight and grit to beat a team like Arizona, obviously they’re a great team and it’s something that we can sustain throughout the season.”
It was an ensemble effort, point guard Tyger Campbell poking balls away for turnovers and Jaime Jaquez Jr. blocking shots and repeatedly slapping balls off Arizona counterparts out of bounds to help his team keep possession.
With victory assured in the final minutes, UCLA fans broke out an “O-ver-ra-ted!” chant before Johnny Juzang buried a turnaround jumper to give the Bruins a 16-point cushion. Juzang added 15 points as one of four Bruins in double figures.
After starting the game on such a tear that it seemed misses might be a rarity, making six of its first seven shots, Arizona endured several lengthy cold spells and finished shooting only 30.7%. Guard Bennedict Mathurin led the Wildcats with 16 points but needed 22 shots to get there, making just five.
Predictably from a team that had not lost in more than a month, Arizona made a run in the second half. The Wildcats buried threes on back-to-back possessions, stirring some murmurs of unease as they pulled to within 53-46.
Jaquez countered with a three-pointer and a layup followed by a block to swing the momentum back his team’s way, and when Juzang found teammate Myles Johnson for a layup in which Johnson was fouled and made the resulting free throw, the Bruins held a 61-46 lead. There wasn’t much remaining doubt about the outcome.
After happily discarding the family fan plan it had adopted in the wake of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA welcomed back students and other fans for the first time since the Bruins beat Colorado on Dec. 1.
The students showed their hatred for Arizona a half-hour before the game when they booed former Wildcats star Richard Jefferson as he walked behind one baseline. Jefferson waved back in jest. The in-game host took another jab at the Wildcats, telling students to make noise if Arizona wasn’t even their backup school.
On his way into the arena before the game, Cronin spoke with students who had been waiting outside since 6 a.m.
“They were going nuts and I was telling them I miss them,” Cronin said, “so it all makes this immensely fun.”
UCLA suffered a loss before tipoff, top reserve Jaylen Clark being sidelined because of concussion-like symptoms after taking a hit to the face in practice. His absence deprived the Bruins of perhaps their best defender and one of their most athletic players.
Clark live-tweeted the game, sending out a message saying “Yea Pwat!” during a first half of highlights for Watson that included a three-pointer and a steal followed by a breakaway layup. He finished with five points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 19 impactful minutes off the bench.
There was more celebrating to come in the game’s final moments for Watson as he clapped while the Bruins dribbled out the clock. He finished with five points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 19 minutes off the bench in his most electric performance as a collegian.
“The problem with my guys, I told them in the locker room,” Cronin said, “I know they had another gear, they just hadn't given it to me yet.”
Consider it delivered, along with a message that could linger all the way into March.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.