His team’s two-point halftime deficit wasn’t what made him boil in the locker room. Mick Cronin was a human inferno because his players had generated just five deflections on defense.
Deflections are the lifeblood of any Cronin team, signifying the defensive effort that he demands through passes that are tipped, shots that are blocked and loose balls that are grabbed.
Cronin wants his teams to generate 40 deflections on any given night, and halfway through UCLA’s game against UC Santa Barbara on Sunday at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins had tallied a measly one-eighth of that total. It wasn’t nearly good enough for a coach who had seen his players assert themselves with greater intensity in practice.
“I challenged our guys,” Cronin said of his halftime speech, “to come with the effort that I’m accustomed to.”
He got it in the opening minutes of the second half. Guard Prince Ali came up with a steal that he turned into a breakaway two-handed dunk. Forward Jalen Hill blocked a shot and converted a three-point play on the other end of the court after getting fouled on a short jumper.
UCLA’s rise in defensive exertion sparked its comeback for a relatively easy 77-61 victory in which the Bruins also experienced a breakthrough on the other side of the ball after playing inside-out over the game’s final 20 minutes.
Hill scored 17 of his career-high 22 points in the second half amid a flurry of putbacks and dunks to go with 10 rebounds and three blocks, earning a loud ovation when he was removed from the game with 53 seconds left.
“Jalen Hill was a monster,” UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack said of a player who nearly doubled his previous career high in points (12).
The Bruins (2-0) fed that monster by taking all but four of their shots inside the three-point arc in the second half, leading to easier rebounding opportunities. Hill snagged eight of UCLA’s 18 offensive rebounds for the game and the Bruins finished with 20 second-chance points.
A lot more went into Hill’s performance than just getting his first start of the season because teammate Cody Riley was battling a virus that had kept him in bed for three days before the game.
“Coach Cronin just telling me to just go get every board,” Hill said, “and that’s what happened.”
Guard Jules Bernard came off the bench to tie a career high with 20 points for the Bruins, who finished with four players in double figures and outscored the Gauchos 45-27 in the second half. Ali triggered his team’s push to start the second half with back-to-back baskets on the way to finishing with 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
After one steal and zero blocks in the first half, UCLA tallied a combined five over the first eight minutes of the second half. The Bruins’ resulting 18-5 surge on the scoreboard gave them a 50-39 lead.
“Once we picked up our energy,” said UCLA guard Chris Smith, who scored 13 points, “our whole team’s disposition was different.”Guard Max Heidegger scored a team-high 21 points for UCSB (1-1), which made just seven of 22 three-pointers (31.8%) for the game and committed nine of its 14 turnovers in the second half.
Cronin said he countered the Gauchos’ guard-heavy lineup by starting Ali in place of Bernard and noted that his starting lineup could be in flux for the balance of the season. The Bruins were without redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal because of a right hip pointer, but the injury is not considered serious and he’s listed as day to day.
UCLA generated 17 deflections in the second half and 22 for the game -- a touch over half the number that Cronin wants. But their strong effort to close the game prompted Pasternack to label the Bruins an NCAA tournament team, and even Cronin had softened considerably after watching his players show signs of early growth.
“We’re a team that should get better as the year goes on, if we can stay healthy,” Cronin said, “because guys are getting more comfortable.”