Hill’s return sparks UCLA to rout Seattle in home opener
There was a comforting normality amid the empty seats inside Pauley Pavilion populated by cutouts of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Henry Winkler and Jack Black, among other luminaries.
Jalen Hill was back on the court showing the many ways he can influence a game.
The UCLA redshirt junior forward blocked a shot against the backboard, leaped for a two-handed putback dunk and made an unselfish pass, finding teammate Jaylen Clark for another dunk in the final minutes.
The Bruins’ home opener served as a reminder of what they had been missing the previous two games with their top interior defender and rebounder sidelined by tendinitis in his right knee.
Hill’s return sparked UCLA to a 78-52 victory over Seattle on Thursday night, the Bruins looking more like a team deserving to be nationally ranked in their first game after losing that designation.
UCLA senior guard Chris Smith wants his coach to verbally push, prod and cajole him, always seeking to bring out his best.
“It felt amazing just being out there with my teammates again,” Hill said after posting a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds to go with three blocks and a menacing presence that the smaller Redhawks could not match.
Hill’s impact was almost immediate after coming off the bench to replace Cody Riley. He got fouled driving to the basket on one of his early touches and took a pass from Jules Bernard along the baseline for a two-handed dunk on the next possession.
His return allowed UCLA (2-1) to abandon the five-guard lineup it used heavily last week against Pepperdine while also going deep into its bench after pulling away with a 14-0 run to end the first half.
Bruins redshirt sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell gutted out 17 points and six assists one day after swelling in his surgically repaired knee forced him to be held out of practice and imperiled his status for the game against Seattle (3-2).
“It’s nothing serious, it was more of a maintenance thing,” said Campbell, who made all eight of his free throws after repeatedly drawing fouls on drives to the basket.
Bernard added 16 points for the Bruins, whose defensive intensity rose exponentially as the game neared its midpoint. After making three of its first four three-pointers, Seattle finished the game missing its final 19 shots from beyond the arc.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin credited Clark’s defensive energy and toughness late in the first half with helping the Bruins go on their big push. They opened the second half with an 11-2 surge to take a 54-31 lead and remove any remaining doubt.
Cronin emptied his bench over the final minutes in a relaxing contrast to the taut finish against Pepperdine that necessitated three overtimes. Sophomore guard Jake Kyman scored seven points in 15 minutes while sinking his first three-pointer of the season.
No Bruin had to play more than 29 minutes and it didn’t matter that sophomore guard Johnny Juzang missed another game because of a stress reaction in his right foot and senior guard Chris Smith had another subpar showing with six points on two-for-seven shooting to go with 11 rebounds and four turnovers.
The turnovers were one area that continued to concern Cronin after the Bruins finished with 15. They’re averaging 14 turnovers per game, one more than their opponents.
UCLA’s game against Long Beach State on Monday was postponed due to COVID-19 issues on the Long Beach State team.
“I’ve been around long enough now guys, I’m getting old and bald, you’re not gonna ever finish at the top of your conference, you’re not gonna be a real good team if you’re not plus in that category,” Cronin said. “So that’s an area where I have really gotta clean things up as their coach.”
There’s nothing Cronin can do about the eerie quiet inside a home arena where the COVID-19 pandemic will keep the stands empty all season except for a few hundred cardboard cutouts of fans and celebrities. Broadcaster Don MacLean, the Bruins’ all-time leading scorer, had the oddity of seeing his own likeness while calling the game for the Pac-12 Network.
The vacant arena forced the Bruins to produce their own energy, Hill providing a winning vibe just by walking onto the court.
“It was just good being out there with him today,” Campbell said. “He’s crazy on the glass and I can throw it up to him, so it really opened up some more stuff for us.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.