Resilient Bruins once again rise to occasion

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Every time you get ready to write off UCLA's season, the Bruins do something like this.

UCLA shocked No. 6 Arizona, 84-73, Thursday night at the McKale Center, turning in a dominant effort against a Wildcats team that had not lost on its home court in nearly a year.

The UCLA victory came on the heels of a home loss to Oregon that ended a 10-game win streak and appeared to be the end of the line for a Bruins team that had come a long way but seemed as if it might not become a championship-caliber squad.

But this was only the latest in a growing pile of evidence that this UCLA team has resolve, resiliency and tenacity to do just that. It's a team that is at its best when it's being doubted. These Bruins seem to have the fortitude to hear people say they can't do something, then prove them wrong.

This win at Arizona was just that kind of win. It was UCLA's first win in Tucson since 2008 and the first road win by the Bruins over a ranked team since 2007-08. It was a win over a respectable team that had defeated Miami, Florida and San Diego State this season and was among the top five in the RPI.

It came just five days after a home loss to the Ducks that seemingly exposed UCLA as a work in progress and cast doubt upon the ceiling of a team that was projected to do big things this season after signing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

"I just think this team has a lot of fire," said point guard Larry Drew II, who had nine assists against the Wildcats. "A lot of energy, a lot of young energy and a lot of guys who want to come out and prove something to everybody."

And that's when UCLA is at its best: when it has something to prove.

First, the Bruins were dismissed when star freshman Shabazz Muhammad was declared ineligible to start the season, but the Bruins went out and won their first three games without him.

A loss to Georgetown in Muhammad's debut raised questions about chemistry and Muhammad's fitness, and those were furthered by an embarrassing defeat to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo right after Thanksgiving.

This team wasn't getting better, according to the word on the street, and coach Ben Howland was about to be shown the door. Two weeks later, UCLA began a 10-game win streak. During that streak, the critics said UCLA needed to prove it on the road, so the Bruins went to Utah and Colorado in their first road swing of the season and swept the mountain trip.

This time, UCLA was supposed to crumble after the loss to Oregon, especially with the tough trip to Arizona coming up, but to see UCLA once again bounce back after being written off as also-rans should come as little surprise. That's the modus operandi of this team.

"We realize we've lost some tough games but at the same time we never give up," David Wear said. "When we lose a game, that makes us mad. We come back and have a great week of practice and it builds into the next game so it's huge for us."

The key now, is to maintain a high level of play from week to week. The Bruins showed Thursday they can play with some of the best in the country, but have yet to show they can do it on a consistent basis.

Some of it is youth and learning that any team can win any game at this level. It shouldn't take adversity to bring out the best in the Bruins if they want to do anything noteworthy in March, and they know it. The key to finding that consistency?

"Not get complacent," freshman Jordan Adams said. "We should play every team like they are a top-ranked opponent and have a high RPI and don't let up on anyone. It's hard to do because you play down to the level of competition, but yeah, we want to step it up."

The good news is that the team has the drive to do that. Muhammad is a prime example. He has been criticized at times this season for his defense and rebounding and has shown the tireless work ethic to shore up those areas. Getting over the inconsistency hump is a mere formality, he said.

"That just comes with effort," Muhammad said. "Coach Howland is always pushing us and especially pushing me. I say it's effort. We do seem to play better with our backs against the wall, but we're getting to where we can play at this level all the time."

It's probably best not to doubt him on that point. Or maybe, for UCLA's sake, it's best that we do.