UCLA gets back in win column with victory over Washington

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From the day he started at UCLA, Mick Cronin said he spelled fun W-I-N.

Over the last two months, as one loss followed another, his team encountered M-I-S-E-R-Y, leaving a segment of the fan base feeling H-O-P-E-L-E-S-S.

So it was invigorating Sunday afternoon for the Bruins to see what transpired inside Pauley Pavilion. Players on the bench roared as Kenneth Nwuba took a charge. Lazar Stefanovic earned an embrace from Brandon Williams after racing to block a fast-break layup from behind. Berke Buyuktuncel clapped his hands over his head while running into the tunnel toward the locker room after the game ended.

For a few hours, basketball was enjoyable again for the team that had traded in the nation’s longest home winning streak for four consecutive losses inside its venerable arena while also losing eight of nine games overall.

Playing with energy, freedom and confidence, UCLA stomped Washington in a 73-61 victory that bore no resemblance to the Bruins’ 46-point loss to Utah three days earlier.

“Tonight, we played a lot smarter and we’ve just got to stay together and continue to get through it the best we can,” Cronin said, “and it’s my job to help them.”

There were strong bounce-back efforts across the board as UCLA (7-10 overall, 2-4 Pac-12) ended a four-game losing streak as well as a four-game home losing streak.

Bullying his way to easy baskets and benefiting from the kinds of crisp entry passes his teammates had struggled to make all season, center Adem Bona scored 22 points while making 10 of 13 shots.

Busting out of his season-long shooting slump, Stefanovic made four of seven shots on the way to 15 points.

And in maybe the most encouraging development, point guard Dylan Andrews notched a career-high eight assists to go with seven points, three rebounds and two steals as part of the team’s concerted effort to get the ball to Bona.

“We did a better job looking for him,” Stefanovic said. “He needs to get touches for us to be good.”

The Bruins also made shots for a change, outshooting the Huskies 50% to 40.4% while making six of 14 three-pointers. Playing its usual sturdy defense, UCLA forced 19 turnovers that led to 26 points, including 17 on the fast break.

“Dominant teams,” Cronin said, “they can really snuff you out like a boa constrictor and then you just go get a layup, which we were able to do tonight.”

Stefanovic said players met among themselves and with coaches in an effort to turn their season around after the Utah loss that was the second-most lopsided in school history.

“There was a different attitude and energy from the last one,” Bona said. “We all took the game personally after the last defeat and you could see the togetherness, guys cheering for each other and sharing the ball. I think this is a good first step for us as a team — caring for each other, celebrating every point, every loose ball, every dive, every charge. I think it’s amazing how things can change when the team comes together and celebrates everything.”

The victory moved UCLA out of a last-place tie with Oregon State in the conference standings and injected some hope for a turnaround over the season’s final two months.

The Bruins’ most telling statistic might have been their 20 assists — one fewer than they had in their previous three games combined — given a lack of ball movement that had led to them entering the game ranking last in the conference in points scored per game (64.2).

That figure was largely the result of ranking last in field-goal accuracy (41%), three-point accuracy (28.2%) and assists per game (11.2).

No matter how much defense you play, it’s hard to win when you don’t pass and you can’t shoot.

But these Bruins seemed emboldened by a change in approach from their coach, who mostly let his players stay on the court after mistakes instead of immediately sending them to the bench.

The Bruins rewarded Cronin with one of their most energetic halves of the season.

UCLA might have found a winning lineup by pairing Jan Vide with Ilane Fibleuil, Buyuktuncel, Andrews and Bona, given that those were the players who sparked the team’s 21-4 run that helped the Bruins take a 30-22 halftime lead.

Vide ran the offense with purpose and hit a three-pointer. Buyuktuncel proved to be a zone buster with his passes, finding Bona and Nwuba underneath the basket for dunks. Fibleuil followed a steal with a layup as part of UCLA’s season-high 22 deflections — defined as steals, blocks, tipped passes and loose balls collected — in the first half.

Sahvir Wheeler’s 27 points weren’t nearly enough for the Huskies (10-7, 2-4) on a day they were outclassed by an opponent that appeared to rediscover its mojo.

“We hope so,” Stefanovic said when asked if this could be a turning point for the Bruins. “We can change our attitude and effort as we’ve done before in the next games and play better, play together. Have 20 assists. We’re in a good spot now.”

Added Bona, suggesting the need to be even better: “Have 21 next game.”

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