No. 2 UCLA defeats Bellarmine in tuneup before Final Four rematch with Gonzaga
It didn’t console coach Mick Cronin that his second-ranked Bruins persevered for a 75-62 victory over Bellarmine on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena in the Good Sam Empire Classic given their across-the-board deficiencies.
“To me, this is a loss,” said Cronin, whose Bruins (5-0) will face top-ranked Gonzaga on Tuesday. “The things that I care about — hustle, attitude, effort, execution, things that will get you wins when they really count — to me Bellarmine won in every category.”
Cronin benched starters Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard to start the second half in favor of Peyton Watson and David Singleton, who carried the team for much of the game. Watson, the freshman guard who entered the game with 13 points in his career, scored 19 points on nine-for-12 shooting in only 19 minutes, showcasing the talent that’s expected to make him an NBA lottery pick while continuing to get more comfortable at the college level.
“For me, it’s just a million thoughts going through my head at once — I’m trying to remember all our plays, who I’m guarding on defense, so it’s a lot for me to take in,” Watson said. “You’ve got guys out there on the court that are three, four, five years older than me and they’ve been doing this for a while, so I would assume it’s more simple for them, but I’m just trying to calm down, settle my thoughts and do the best I can.”
As UCLA and Gonzaga prepare for a rematch, eight prominent Bruins players share their thoughts on the Final Four game and what they expect on Tuesday.
Singleton scored 13 points on five-for-eight shooting to help offset a cold shooting night from Juzang, Bernard, Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., who combined to make 11 of 40 shots (27.5%). Jaquez and Bernard were especially high-volume shooters in the first half, taking 15 of their team’s 37 shots and making only five.
“The challenge for me … is us maintaining who we are,” Cronin said, “so if we’re just going to be a great team when we make shots, we’re in deep trouble.”
Cronin said starting spots were not guaranteed regardless of past performance.
“In our program, you need to make me happy,” Cronin said. “Then you get to play and if you try to do that every day, you get better like Peyton Watson. When you start trying to make other people happy, you’re not going to get to play in our program and that goes for shot selection, defense, pick a topic.”
Guard Dylan Penn scored 19 points for Bellarmine (0-5), which closed to within 10 points late in the game after trailing by 23 early in the second half.
It was not the sort of warmup act Cronin was seeking before taking on Gonzaga in a rematch of their classic Final Four battle that the Bulldogs won on Jalen Suggs’ 40-footer at the overtime buzzer.
“We’ve got to do some soul-searching or we’ll be cruising for a serious hurt [Tuesday],” Cronin said. “First of all, I’ve got to get the starters’ minds right, we’ve got to get humble and we’ve got to worry about toughness and defense and execution on offense.”
Dick Vitale, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, will make his courtside return Tuesday as part of ESPN’s broadcast for the UCLA vs. Gonzaga game.
Are the Bruins ready for the Bulldogs?
“No,” Cronin said. “Absolutely not.”
Cronin ruled out redshirt junior forward Cody Riley for the game against Gonzaga, saying he was about two weeks away from returning from the knee injury he suffered in the season opener.
“I’d be a lot happier if he was playing,” Cronin said, “but we’re not going to rush him.”
When it comes to rediscovering the heady play that helped his team reach the Final Four a year ago, Cronin can’t afford to be nearly as patient.
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