The vibe inside Pauley Pavilion was upbeat before the game. The keepsake UCLA tickets featured a smiling Mick Cronin holding a basketball, and the coach generated a few cheers when he was shown folding his arms on the scoreboard as part of a pregame video.
For nearly 36 minutes, that might have been about it for the highlights Wednesday night.
The Bruins exhibited flashes of Cronin’s trademark tenacious defense but appeared completely adrift on offense before finally saving their coach from an inglorious introduction to the home fans by making the necessary plays at the end of a 69-65 victory over Long Beach State that was every bit as ugly as the score indicated.
UCLA finished the game on a 15-7 run that included some feistiness in the closing seconds when guard Chris Smith blocked a shot and forward Jalen Hill forced a jump ball that went back to the Bruins. Cronin said he saw value in winning a game in which his team struggled against an opponent that played five different defenses.
“If you can be in a dogfight and win it,” Cronin said, “you can get a lot more out of it than if you end up blowing somebody out.”
UCLA had trailed for the entire second half until Hill pulled the Bruins into a 58-58 tie by making two free throws with 3:38 left. Forward Cody Riley then gave UCLA the lead for good with a driving layup that prompted roars from the crowd of 6,265, which included a good turnout from the students.
Long Beach State coach Dan Monson called timeout to set up a play, but guard Michael Carter III turned the ball over. After UCLA’s Prince Ali made a three-pointer to extend his team’s cushion to 63-58, all the Bruins needed to do was make enough free throws to prevent Cronin from becoming the first UCLA coach to lose his debut since Steve Lavin, who was the interim replacement for Jim Harrick when the Bruins lost to Tulsa in November 1996.
“I saw a lot of resilience, a lot of guys who were hungry and a team that wanted to win,” Ali said.
Picked by the media to finish eighth in the Pac-12 Conference, the Bruins showed just how much work they have to do to become a solid team. Their defensive effort exceeded their execution on the other end of the court, as expected. They registered 11 steals and 32 of the 40 deflections Cronin wants every game, but their offense was hide-your-eyes ugly.
The big culprit was the lack of a discernible plan whenever UCLA had the ball, as well as a lot of standing around. The Bruins made just 39.6% of their shots and five of 19 three-pointers (26.3%).
“It’s just going to take us time to find a rhythm offensively as a team and get guys comfortable,” Cronin said. “We’re still trying to figure out who to play with whom, we’re still trying to figure out roles on this team.”
Freshman guard Tyger Campbell led UCLA with 15 points and five assists while playing almost 38 minutes, six more minutes than Cronin said he wanted him to play on a routine basis. Riley added 14 points and Smith tallied 13 points and eight rebounds.
Carter finished with a team-high 20 points for the Beach (0-1).
The first half went about as poorly as it could for the Bruins and yet they still trailed only 33-27 at the game’s midpoint thanks to a yeoman’s effort on the defensive end, where they generated seven steals and three blocks.
The problem was that too many of those plays generated nothing on the other end of the court. A Smith steal resulted in a David Singleton turnover in transition. Alex Olesinski reached in for another steal, but the Bruins gave it right back.
There was also the matter of UCLA’s offense. By the second media timeout, the Bruins had made only three of 11 shots with five turnovers. They missed their first six three-pointers before Campbell finally buried one and made only two of 12 three-pointers in the first half.
In the closing minutes, it was the stops that keyed the Bruins’ comeback.
“Once we stopped giving up layups,” Cronin said, “we gave ourselves a chance to win the game.”