Mick Cronin wouldn’t indulge any of the easy narratives about growth or toughness or lessons learned.
Not here, not now, when there was a much deeper issue that the UCLA coach wanted his young players to understand before patting themselves on the back for a respectable showing against a nationally ranked team.
“You can never accept losing, you can never let your players accept losing,” Cronin said. “Your players cannot accept it.”
For one half Wednesday against No. 3 Michigan State, it seemed as if UCLA might not have to.
The Bruins were as tough as they needed to be, arms flailing and feet shuffling and bodies ceaselessly shifting into position. It was the execution that proved to be UCLA’s undoing during a 75-62 loss in the fifth-place game of the Maui Invitational.
There were errant alley-oop passes, push offs for offensive fouls, hurried shots and an illegal screen. The lack of precision was too much to overcome against a steady opponent, particularly as the pace quickened to the Bruins’ detriment and they continued to clank shots. UCLA missed all five of its three-point shots in the second half and 13 of its 15 attempts for the game.
“Really, that’s the difference in the game,” said Cronin, noting that the Bruins outrebounded Michigan State by one and committed only 10 turnovers, but allowed the Spartans to make eight three-pointers.
The Bruins (5-3) played the Spartans (5-2) even for a half before faltering as Michigan State found its offensive footing and scored 49 points over the final 20 minutes. Guard Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 20 points.
Trailing by only three points at halftime, UCLA fell behind by 10 a little more than three minutes into the second half and struggled to keep the margin under double digits for the balance of the game, unable to get the stops it had consistently generated in the first half.
“If we had been able to replicate what we did in the first half, I think we would have had a better chance of winning this game,” guard Prince Ali said. “So going forward that’s what’s going to win us games — defense, not offense.”
It appeared the Bruins had an opening when trailing by nine points with about four minutes left when forward Cody Riley drove for what looked like an easy layup before a fast-closing Xavier Tillman materialized to block the shot. Tillman converted on the other end as well when he went in for a dunk that extended Michigan State’s lead back to 11 points.
UCLA freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. was solid in his first career start, finishing with seven points and a game-high eight rebounds in a team-high 35 minutes.
“Hard to take him off the floor right now,” Cronin said, noting Jaquez’s hustle and willingness to call out teammates when needed.
Chris Smith scored 13 points coming off the bench for the Bruins and Riley scored 11.
For anyone who had witnessed Michigan State’s 20-point beatdown of UCLA this time last season, the display qualified as an unmistakable step forward for the Bruins.
“What I remember last year, the game was over in seven minutes,” said Ali, who scored 10 points but missed all four of his three-point shots, including one that he airballed at the end of the shot clock. “This year, we played the whole game.”
Cronin had wanted UCLA to play Michigan State in this tournament because he said the Spartans under coach Tom Izzo embodied everything he wanted the Bruins to become, winning the national championship in 2000 and making eight appearances in the Final Four while doing so with integrity. When he interviewed with athletic director Dan Guerrero before taking the job, Cronin told his future boss that if he could accomplish half of what Izzo has done at Michigan State then he would consider it a success.
Izzo provided Cronin with what appeared to be a message of encouragement in the handshake line and complimented his counterpart when he met with reporters.
“He’s been a student of the game, what he’s done at Cincinnati,” Izzo said. “I think when he brings that to the West Coast, they’re going to have trouble putting up with him early. And as they say, I guess, it was Bo [Schembechler, the legendary Michigan football coach], those who stay will be champions.”
Cronin said he had fielded calls from advisors who told him not to be too hard on his young team in his first season. He understood the sentiment but also knew the message he needed to continue to impart.
Losing is never acceptable.
“They got to understand that you can give great effort, which we did today in a lot of ways, but still it can’t be OK,” Cronin said. “It can never be OK. It can never be OK.”