All 205 pounds of Jules Bernard’s body slammed against the floor.
On a night full of defensive highlights and hustle plays, Bernard’s all-out dive for a loose ball was the loudest, sending a thud echoing around Pauley Pavilion.
The UCLA forward didn’t stay down for long, though. One Bruins assistant coach pulled him to his feet. Another whispered encouragement in his ear. From a few feet away, first-year head coach Mick Cronin watched in delight.
The Bruins continued embodying their new coach’s defensive ethos Friday night, engineering a 71-54 win over Nevada Las Vegas with energy and effort on their own end of the floor and offensive efficiency on the other.
“We tried to emphasize our energy early in the game,” Cronin said. “Talked about it a lot today at practice at 2 o’clock. It carried over into the game.”
Like a new couple, Cronin and the Bruins are still getting to know each other. Their season opener was like a first date, team and coach feeling one another out in a four-point win over Long Beach State.
Game No. 2 was more seamless, the Bruins pulling away from overmatched UC Santa Barbara in the second half for a 16-point win.
They looked like a perfect match during long stretches Friday, with Cronin’s renewed defensive emphasis pairing nicely with UCLA’s explosive offensive flair. The Bruins outshot the Rebels from the field, 49% to 39%, they outscored UNLV off turnovers 25-13, they held a 35-27 edge in rebounds, and they hit three more three-pointers than their Mountain West Conference guests.
In the first half, the Bruins capitalized on their suffocating defense. Their first points, a corner three-pointer from guard Tyger Campbell, came after a UNLV turnover. Three more Rebels giveaways after that fueled a 14-0 UCLA run. Later, the Bruins went on a 17-4 scoring spurt to open a 22-point lead. The Rebels would never get closer than nine the rest of the night.
Chris Smith led the Bruins with a career-high 16 points, going six of 10 from the field while also collecting eight rebounds. Cronin proudly noted his seven deflections on defense as well.
“I should of had more,” Smith said grinning. When asked later what led to his best game of the season, the junior guard parroted Cronin’s philosophy: “Defense and effort.”
Meanwhile, Campbell tallied 15 points, four assists and three three-pointers. Prince Ali had 14 points and four assists. Cody Riley scored nine in his return to the starting lineup. Jalen Hill matched Smith with a team-high eight rebounds of his own.
Soon enough, Cronin will know just how far along his team is.
Later this month, they’ll face Brigham Young and potentially Kansas in the Maui Invitational. In December, they play Notre Dame and North Carolina back-to-back. There are currently eight other undefeated teams in the Pac-12 as well. But for now, the Bruins are in something of a honeymoon phase under their new coach, taking his message of defensive fortitude to heart a little more every night.
“I thought our effort was great,” Cronin said. “You hold teams down like that, you’re going to win a lot of games.”