It was a normal elevation at 5,346 feet above sea level.
Jaime Jacques Jr. threw the ball under the scoreboard. Tiger Campbell and Dylan Andrews exchanged a volatile body bump and an intense embrace. Adam Bona raised his fist to acknowledge the cheering fans as he walked into a tunnel.
For the first time in a decade, UCLA is the outright Pac-12 champion.
The fourth-ranked Bruins got there after a brutal first half disposal and owning all the highlight in the closing minutes of an unexpectedly tight 60-56 win over Colorado on Sunday afternoon at the CU Events Center.
“Great resilience,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin after his team overcame an early 10-point deficit to clinch the win despite hitting just one of 14 three-pointers.
UCLA’s eighth straight win gave the Bruins (25-4 overall, 16-2 Pac-12) a three-game lead over second-place Arizona and USC with two games to play before the conference championship.
The brief celebration on the court served as a precursor to some pulsating music and booming locker room banter that could be heard in the adjoining concourse. Cronin instructed his players not to douse him with any drinks given that they still needed to win more games to capture the top seed in the West in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were just fired up,” Jackies, who led the Bruins with 17 points, said of the celebrations, “but we have to understand, we’re playing for something much bigger than this.”
Everything kept running thanks to the Bruins’ latest shutout special. Campbell scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half, including two deflected shots in the final minutes. The first came on an acrobatic shovel around the 7-foot-1 center of Lawson Lovering before the point guard made a running back jump that gave UCLA a 56-53 lead.
“Tiger brought us home late,” Cronin said. “We were looking to attack, and I put the ball into his hands.”
Missing star forward Tristan Da Silva, who injured his ankle with five minutes left in the game, Colorado (15-15, 7-12) closed to a two-point lead after scoring a foul and making one of two free throws.
Tensions rose when the Buffaloes got the ball back before point guard KJ Simpson fouled a challenge to Bona, who kicked his shot to start a quick break that ended with an Amari Bailey dunk that gave UCLA a 58-54 cushion with 16 seconds left in the game. .
“Not a shock,” Cronin said. “I mean, you can’t just drive it in there and shoot it in Puna’s face. It just doesn’t work.”
Two more Colorado throws with nine seconds left after UCLA’s Gaylen Clark was fouled while fighting for a rebound, giving the Buffaloes renewed hope. But Jaquez crushed it with a long pass to Bailey for a breakaway that was thwarted by a foul. Cronin called the play in a timeout rally and Jackie executed it perfectly after reading the defense.
“I saw the defender play inside and nobody came back, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s over,'” Jacques said.
It was shortly after Bailey made two free throws with seven seconds left to extend UCLA’s advantage to four points. Campbell stole Colorado’s final pass along the baseline with one second left, sparking celebration as the Bruins enjoyed their first Pac-12 regular season championship since the 2012-13 season.
Cronin said his team will not take a relaxed approach to the final games of the regular season since the Bruins want to protect a 23-game home winning streak, the longest in the country. And they also want to send out seniors Jackies, Campbell and David Singleton as winners of their final home game next weekend against Arizona in a game that will be emotionally charged even without a title on the line.
“I think we would have loved to have all the balls on the line in the last game of the season, I think that would have been fun,” said Jacques, “but obviously we wanted to get it done as quickly as possible.”
The Bruins were practicing Saturday when Arizona State’s Desmond Cambridge Jr. hit a 60-footer at the buzzer to stun Arizona, giving UCLA an unlikely title shot against the Buffaloes.
“Obviously we were excited, we knew what that meant and we wanted to finish the road trip well,” said Jacques.
They accomplished it, giving Cronin his first major conference championship in a 20-year coaching career after his teams finished second twice and fourth once in his first three seasons with the Bruins. Was this his most flattering title?
“You know, I’d do it about the kids,” Cronin said before breaking into a wry smile. “You know, now that you’ve said that, I gotta check my contract.”
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