Jules Bernard made his way to the scorer’s table and checked into the game early in the first half.
The UCLA guard lost his dribble on his first possession, committing a turnover, and was yanked, unsure that coach Mick Cronin really was taking him out only 33 seconds after putting him in until assistant Darren Savino yelled confirmation from the bench.
There was a similar scene later in the first half when Bruins forward Jalen Hill, not exactly known for his long-range marksmanship, hoisted a jumper that missed badly. Cronin gestured madly with both arms and looked down his bench toward forward Cody Riley, who subbed in for Hill once play stopped.
The bench, as the Bruins are learning, can be a great motivator.
Cronin didn’t keep either Bernard or Hill out for long during UCLA’s 76-61 victory over Southern Utah on Monday night at Pauley Pavilion, but they appeared to get the message.
Bernard returned and swished a three-pointer and Hill came back to throw down a monstrous dunk on the way to finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
“If you’re going to play for UCLA, you’re going to play the way we want you to play,” Cronin said, noting that he’s judicious with taking players out and often lets them play through mistakes unless it’s an issue he’s emphasized. “It’s kind of like your children, you tell them not to do it once, twice, third time you’re out.”
Cronin could afford to tinker with his lineups at will against the outmanned Thunderbirds, who didn’t score back-to-back baskets until late in the first half while struggling to handle the Bruins’ defensive intensity.
UCLA piled up seven blocks, six steals and 24 deflections by halftime, when it held a 35-22 advantage that would have been far greater had the Bruins not endured a sloppy stretch for several minutes late in the first half.
Guard David Singleton illustrated UCLA’s toughness early in the second half when he ripped the ball away from Southern Utah’s Dwayne Morgan, who grabbed Singleton in frustration and was called for a foul. Singleton clapped in delight as he walked away.
The Bruins (4-0) finished strong across the board in Cronin’s favorite categories, tallying 10 blocks, 11 steals and 42 deflections, but struggled in the free-throw department, making just 25 of 39 attempts (64.1%).
The Thunderbirds played the Bruins even over the first 11 minutes of the second half until UCLA’s Chris Smith drilled a three-pointer and took a nifty pass from Prince Ali for a dunk, a personal 5-0 run that gave his team a 57-40 lead with 7:38 left.
Smith finished with a career high for a second consecutive game, his 20 points on seven-for-11 shooting topping the 16 points that he scored Friday against Nevada Las Vegas.
The Bruins entered the game with every starter averaging double figures in scoring and received similar balance against the Thunderbirds. In addition to the big nights from Smith and Hill, Ali scored 10 points, Tyger Campbell added nine and Riley had eight.
Guard John Knight III scored 14 points for Southern Utah (2-2), which shot only 35.7% and had three starters foul out, much to the delight of UCLA students who audibly chronicled every step they took before taking a seat on the bench.
UCLA freshman forward Shareef O’Neal scored his first career point, on a free throw in the first half, after missing the previous two games with a hip pointer. He added a three-pointer early in the second half and finished with five points and three rebounds in 17 minutes.
Cronin wasn’t done with the quick hooks after his first-half flurry. He pulled Jamie Jaquez Jr. in the game’s final minutes after the freshman guard pushed off in the backcourt while dribbling, giving the ball back to the Thunderbirds on a turnover.
The lessons are likely to continue for a young team that continues to find its footing in the season’s early going despite an unblemished record. Bigger tests, and stronger adversity, await.