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No. 5 UCLA shows no signs of rust in rout over Long Beach State

UCLA guard Peyton Watson drives past Long Beach State guard Colin Slater.
UCLA guard Peyton Watson drives past Long Beach State guard Colin Slater during the first half of the Bruins’ 96-78 win Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Twenty-six days later, as UCLA made its long-awaited return, the Bruins found themselves in a surreal scene reminiscent of one year ago.

There was an arena that was nearly empty. Fake fan noise. Piped-in band music when players ran onto the court before the game.

Reminders of the pandemic’s continuing grip could be seen and heard everywhere Thursday evening inside Pauley Pavilion. Fortunately for the Bruins, there were also some familiar on-court trends that persisted in the team’s first game in nearly a month.

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Jules Bernard sustained his seasonlong emergence as one of the nation’s top guards and Johnny Juzang made more than enough shots, propping up No. 5 UCLA on an evening its defense faded badly in the second half of a 96-78 victory over Long Beach State that was marred by Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s ankle injury.

In the final minutes of the first half, Jaquez landed on a foot and rolled his right ankle. The junior guard did not return, sitting on the bench for part of the second half with a large wrap on his foot before replacing it with his sock and shoe.

“Hopefully it’s not that bad,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “He can walk, so that’s a start.”

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. grimaces after coming down hard on the floor.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. grimaces after coming down hard on the floor during first half against Long Beach State at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In a hastily arranged rematch of a game between the teams from November, Bernard led the Bruins (9-1) with 22 points, matching the season high he had set against the Beach in that first meeting. Juzang shook off a slow start to finish with 18 points and point guard Tyger Campbell tallied 11 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers.

“It’s good that we have options,” Juzang said. “Different guys, different nights, whoever can produce.”

Cronin equated his team’s first game since Dec. 11 to starting the season over. The lengthy layoff was evident early in the game when Juzang air-balled a baseline jumper and bricked two free throws in a strange display for someone making 86.7% of his attempts from the line this season.

“I can’t remember the last time I missed two free throws in a row,” said Juzang, who finished the game making one of three free throws and seven of 14 shots, including three of eight three-pointers.

The Bruins built a 45-29 halftime lead largely on the strength of solid defense, maintaining the identity they had built before pausing basketball activities last month amid a rash of positive COVID-19 tests.

That defense faltered in the second half as Long Beach State (4-8) scored 49 points while making 55.6% of its shots. Cronin suggested the Beach did his team a favor by keeping the game reasonably competitive.

A nearly empty Pauley Pavilion as UCLA plays Long Beach State.
A nearly empty Pauley Pavilion as UCLA plays Long Beach State on Thursday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“It made us keep playing for 40 minutes, which we needed,” Cronin said. “I didn’t think we’d have any chance Saturday [against California] if we didn’t play today. I was convinced we were in deep trouble if we try to go play Cal, who’s really playing well, on the road without a game in a month.”

In his return from the sprained knee ligament that had sidelined him since the season opener, UCLA redshirt senior forward Cody Riley won the game’s opening tip, scored the first points on a layup and finished with eight points and two rebounds in 20 minutes.

Juzang revealed afterward that he was one of the team’s three players who has not contracted COVID-19, intending to keep it that way for the rest of the season.

“Be smart. Be responsible,” Juzang said of his approach. “It’s so contagious, but I’m not a doctor. Just staying healthy. I try to eat really well. I make sure I’m getting vitamins that probably can help you, so just doing all that preventive stuff.”

Bucking the trend of pro teams, UCLA men’s basketball will not allow fans at its home game Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.

Playing for the second time in as many days after facing Westcliff, a NAIA opponent, on Wednesday night, Long Beach State got 27 points from freshman guard Jadon Jones. But Colin Slater and Joel Murray, who combined for 57 points against the Bruins in November, managed just 12 points in the rematch that was played before fewer than 100 fans after UCLA restricted the crowd to family members of players because of the worsening pandemic.

“Can’t bring them back fast enough for me,” Cronin said of the fans.

The biggest in-game adjustment might have come from stadium operations, which lowered the fake fan noise several notches after it reverberated through the empty arena at earsplitting levels in the opening minutes.

“That was kind of funny,” Juzang said of the fan noise. “And the simulated band was pretty funny. They usually play music during timeouts so that wasn’t any different. We miss the fans, though, so hopefully we’re going to be able to get them back because we love having them there — it makes a huge difference.”


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