Players were milling about on the court with a little more than five minutes left in the game, UCLA’s David Singleton having just missed a three-pointer that might have been a knockout blow amid the Bruins’ big run.
Teammate Chris Smith walked over to Singleton and patted him on the chest, telling him to shoot the next time he got the ball.
He certainly did, without any hesitation.
Singleton buried a deep three on the Bruins’ next possession, eliciting a smile from Smith and extending UCLA’s advantage to seven during an eventual 67-57 victory over Washington on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins fell behind by 12 in the second half again, just like they had against Washington State two nights earlier, and the parallels didn’t end there. They tightened their defense and used a 13-2 surge to go ahead by seven on Singleton’s three before holding on against the Pac-12’s last-place team.
“He just told me to ‘keep shooting, we need you to shoot,’” Singleton said of Smith, “so it’s really good to have that belief from my teammates. It gives me a sense of confidence and a comfort level.”
UCLA (15-11, 8-5 Pac-12) averted what was shaping up as a backward march to its December doldrums, instead securing a third consecutive victory and seventh win in nine games. The Bruins remained tied with USC for fifth in the conference, one game behind first-place Colorado.
“We couldn’t get shots to go down and let it affect our defensive intensity,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “That was the story of the game for a long time.”
Scoring wasn’t a problem during a second half in which the Bruins outscored the Huskies 40-23.
Smith finished with 20 points on seven-for-14 shooting and sophomore forward Cody Riley contributed 15 points and seven rebounds in another strong showing off the bench. Singleton had 14 points, making four of nine three-pointers, including the one that put UCLA ahead 58-51.
Cronin said his team’s ability to work the ball inside against the zone defense changed the complexion of the game because it forced defenders to sag off the perimeter.
“That’s why David got open shots,” Cronin said. “If we wouldn’t have gotten the ball to Cody and Jalen [Hill] inside, we would have never come back.”
Washington (12-14, 2-11) looked like it would break a losing streak that stretched back to mid-January when it led by 12 early in the second half.
The Bruins were staring at each other incredulously, wondering what had happened, after they allowed Washington’s Isaiah Stewart to get behind the defense for a dunk and a 39-27 cushion.
But UCLA started making shots and getting stops. Smith buried a baseline jumper to tie the score at 49 and put UCLA ahead for good shortly thereafter when he sunk a three-pointer for a 53-51 lead.
Stewart and Jaden McDaniels scored 15 points each for Washington, which shot 28.6% in the second half on the way to its eighth consecutive loss.
The Bruins said their commitment to defense has sparked their turnaround from a team that lost to Cal State Fullerton at home to one that’s challenging for a Pac-12 title.
“Everybody’s buying in to everything’s Cronin’s preaching, especially on the defensive end,” Smith said, “because that’s what got us back in this game and the seven games we’ve won in the last nine, it’s all defense.”
UCLA’s offense has benefited from a revolving door of contributors that Singleton stepped through against the Huskies.
The sophomore guard has struggled with his shot for much of the season, slowly rounding into form following a foot injury he suffered last March. But his contributions always transcended his statistics, even when he wasn’t scoring much.
“He never pouts,” Cronin said. “Never.”
Singleton also seems to have grasped his coach’s idea of what it means to have fun because it’s synonymous with doing what it takes to win.
“Fun is not putting up shots, it’s not playing selfish ball,” Singleton said. “Fun is playing defense and helping out a teammate, doing the little stuff that’s not going to show up on the stat sheet, playing team defense, all that stuff, and then in the outcome we’ll be fine.”