As the second half dragged toward its merciful finish Sunday, the question became not whether UCLA would win but whether California would score again.
The Golden Bears missed jump shots, layups and putbacks during an epic dry spell. Their one-point lead became a double-digit deficit. They went 11 minutes without a point.
By the time Cal’s Matt Bradley made a one-handed floater to end the scoreless stretch with a little under six minutes to play in Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins were well on their way to a 50-40 victory that won’t make it into any greatest-games anthology.
It was the kind of defensive slugfest that pleased coach Mick Cronin after the Bruins ended a skid at three games, even if they failed to set a record for fewest points given up on their home court.
“We had them at 37, and I was upset we gave up a three at the end,” Cronin said dryly after the Bruins gave up their fewest points in a game since holding USC to 40 in March 2012 during the Pac-12 Conference tournament. It was the fewest combined points in a UCLA victory since the Bruins defeated Washington State 50-30 in February 2006.
For all of its own offensive struggles, UCLA (9-9 overall, 2-3 Pac-12) could exhale after avoiding another second-half letdown and winning on its home court for the first time in 42 days.
Forward Jalen Hill tenderly placed his arm on teammate Tyger Campbell’s shoulder as the teams walked through the postgame handshake line. Several UCLA students pranced around the open bleachers next to the band playing “Rover,” a celebratory tune it last performed after a home victory over Denver on Dec. 8.
“It felt really good to get one at home, get everyone’s spirits up,” guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said after scoring 11 points as one of only three Bruins to reach double figures. Hill scored all of his 11 points in the first half and guard Chris Smith led all scorers with 17 points on seven-for-nine shooting in his latest impressive display of shot making.
“For us to win, Chris has got to give us some offense,” Cronin said. “Unlike the Democratic Party, we don’t have that many candidates.”
Make no mistake, UCLA won thanks to a defense that made 12 consecutive stops in the second half while Cal (8-10, 2-3) missed 15 consecutive shots. The Bruins’ help defense, pick-and-roll coverage and communication that had sagged in the first half perked up considerably over the final 20 minutes, when Cal made only seven of 25 shots (28%).
UCLA outscored the Golden Bears 14-0 during its second-half surge, avoiding a repeat of the late-game slumps that had plagued it during recent losses to Washington State, USC and Stanford.
“We’ve noticed that in film, that we just die at some point in the second half no matter what’s going on, be it losing, can’t make a shot or something along those lines,” Smith said. “We just tried to keep the energy up in the second half.”
Bradley scored 17 points but the Golden Bears, who shot 30.4% overall, could not capitalize on the absence of guard Prince Ali, who did not play after rolling an ankle in practice Friday.
Points were an especially valuable commodity during a game in which both teams seemingly competed to see which one could come up with the most empty possessions.
UCLA turned the ball over nine times in the first half, failing to build more than a 22-21 halftime lead even though Cal didn’t reach double figures in scoring until there were 7 minutes 45 seconds left in the half.
The Bruins played with more precision the rest of the way, turning the ball over only four times in the second half.
It wasn’t exactly enthralling basketball, fans saving their biggest cheers for former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi tossing T-shirts into the crowd and Bradley missing the first of two free throws in the second half, raising the possibility of free Fat Sal’s French fries for all in attendance.
But it was a win for a team that desperately needed one as it tries to find its footing and fulfill the mandate of its coach.
“Worry about your toughness, worry about your defense,” Cronin said, “and please take care of the basketball.”