Mick Cronin is holding in-season auditions, the UCLA coach seeking what he described as competitive fight and fire from young players who sometimes play as if they expect the four letters across their chest to do all the work.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton earned callbacks Tuesday.
Jaquez infused some much-needed grit and Singleton put on a singular shooting display inside Lahaina Civic Center, helping the Bruins avoid infamy with a 74-48 victory over Chaminade in a consolation round of the Maui Invitational.
It looked like UCLA might be headed for the college basketball equivalent of a cliffside dive into some jagged rocks when it opened the second half with back-to-back-to-back turnovers.
“That’s impressive, isn’t it?” Cronin said dryly afterward.
The Bruins tipped off 12½ hours after they had left the arena following a loss to Brigham Young in the opening round, and it showed when they committed 15 turnovers in just more than 21 minutes. The sloppy stretch allowed tiny Chaminade, the NCAA Division II school from Honolulu and longtime darling of this tournament, to pull into a tie with its far more storied counterpart early in the second half.
That’s when a seldom-used freshman made a case for top billing.
Jaquez, inserted into the lineup to start the second half in place of struggling teammate Chris Smith, went from bit player to breakout star. He took a pass from Cody Riley for a layup to break the tie. He leaped high into the air to steal an inbounds pass before scoring on a give-and-go layup involving Smith.
By the time Jaquez blocked a shot and got fouled going after the loose ball, UCLA (5-2) was up by 10 points and comfortably on the way to breaking its two-game losing streak. Jaquez was on the way to scoring a career-high 17 points on eight-for-11 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, three steals and one block while playing every second of the second half.
“He’s not afraid to cross the line and tell his teammates, ‘We need to man up and play like grownups,’ ” Cronin said of Jaquez, who played a career-high 30 minutes. “I’m trying to build a program, so like I told the guys, it’s tryout time. Everybody’s in an audition, the way I see it. And he plays with a lot of heart.”
For the first time this season, Singleton resembled the sharpshooting whiz he had been a year ago while making all of his career-high five three-pointers in the second half. It gave him a career-high 15 points and helped the Bruins move into the fifth-place game Wednesday morning against No. 3 Michigan State, a program that Cronin said he was trying to emulate as part of his rebuilding efforts.
Singleton acknowledged having played tight in the season’s early going while recovering from a broken foot but said the Bruins found a common sense of purpose in the second half.
“We started playing to win and not for ourselves,” said Singleton, who made five of six three-point attempts, “and I think that was the main difference.”
Riley added 15 points and Prince Ali had 10 had for the Bruins, who straightened out their errant ways, committing only three turnovers over the game’s final 18½ minutes. What changed?
“Take the guys out that turn the ball over,” Cronin said. “Put guys in that don’t.”
UCLA also bounced back defensively, holding Chaminade to 23.3% shooting and an opponent season low for points, after giving up an average of 83 points over its previous two games. Eliet Donley scored a team-high 10 points for the Silverswords (2-2), who fell to 8-94 all time in the Maui Invitational, including an 0-35 record on the second day of the tournament.
Cronin continued his habit of yanking players quickly after they made mistakes, pulling forward Jalen Hill only 40 seconds into the second half following a turnover. The coach later called Smith over and loudly informed him he played no defense.
Some of the messages appear to be sinking in; Smith eventually forced a turnover by diving for a ball near the sideline.
Singleton said he didn’t have to play in fear of being removed for mistakes, only a lack of resolve and smarts.
“If you don’t let your team down, he won’t pull you out,” Singleton said of his new coach. “You just have to show effort and show hustle and show toughness.”
Cronin might have just found two players who fit that description.