No. 7 UCLA goes on the defensive to deliver Mick Cronin his first win over Stanford

Stanford forward Spencer Jones, center, tries to shoot between UCLA guards Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton.
Stanford forward Spencer Jones, center, tries to shoot between UCLA guards Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and David Singleton during the first half of the Bruins’ 66-43 win Saturday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Mick Cronin has taken UCLA to a Final Four. He’s restocked the roster with talented players who complement the ones he inherited. He’s restored prestige to the Bruins’ brand.

One thing Cronin had not done before Saturday: beat Stanford.

He ticked that off his to-do list thanks to the sort of suffocating defense that suggested his increasingly short-handed team is rounding into NCAA tournament form six weeks before Selection Sunday.


“The effort under the circumstances,” Cronin said after the seventh-ranked Bruins unleashed another lockdown effort during a 66-43 victory at Pauley Pavilion, “was really unbelievable.”

The Bruins’ record $62.5-million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year reflects the many ways in which COVID-19 has affected schools from coast to coast.

Playing its third game in five days, the Bruins retained their pep, particularly on defense. Using a full-court press in addition to active hands and effective switches, UCLA forced 14 of Stanford’s 22 turnovers by halftime. Sometimes, just getting the ball past half-court was an achievement for the Cardinal.

It was the third consecutive opponent that UCLA (16-2 overall, 8-1 Pac-12) has held below 60 points, all coming during a busy portion of the schedule that forced the team to ditch practices between games in favor of walk-throughs accompanied by film sessions.

The intensity the Bruins unveiled in romps over Arizona, California and Stanford might make Cronin consider sticking with the formula.

UCLA guard Peyton Watson, top, steals the ball from Stanford forward Brandon Angel during the second half.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“When guys are defending because they want to, when guys are trying to tip passes because they want to, when guys are going after loose balls not because I’m making them,” Cronin said, “you can tell when a team’s just trying to win at all costs and if you don’t win you don’t win, but you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

There was some misfortune to dampen the fun. Already missing leading scorer Johnny Juzang (COVID-19 protocols) and top defender Jaylen Clark (concussion protocol), the Bruins lost junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. when he stepped on a foot and reinjured his right ankle in the first half.

Jaquez briefly checked back into the game, missing a three-pointer, before making a second trip to a trainer’s table. He did not play again, pulling a T-shirt over his jersey and watching the second half from behind the baseline.

Guard Jules Bernard led the Bruins with 16 points, including a pivotal three-point play after the Cardinal momentarily threatened with about eight minutes left, and Jake Kyman added a season-high 15 points off the bench.

UCLA guard Jake Kyman dives for a loose ball ahead of Stanford guard Sam Beskind during the first half.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA players celebrate during a win over Stanford on Saturday
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Guard Isa Silva scored eight points to lead the Cardinal (12-7, 5-4), whose bid for a victory that could enhance their NCAA tournament chances fizzled after they made 27.1% of their shots and 15% of their three-pointers.

It would have been a blowout of epic proportions if the Bruins didn’t endure their own shooting struggles. UCLA shot 37.3%, making just four of 29 three-pointers (13.8%), but it wasn’t for lack of open looks amid some zippy ball movement.

“It reinforces our culture,” Cronin said, “when you can win and dominate a game without making shots with your best shooters.”

Cronin had dropped his first two games against Stanford since arriving at UCLA, both losses the kind that stick with you like chewing gum on the bottom of sneakers.

After Stanford stomped the Bruins during Cronin’s first season, the coach called out his players, labeling them soft and selfish, to spark a late-season surge. The Cardinal’s one-point victory over UCLA last season, on a layup off an inbounds pass in overtime, was so maddening that Bernard slammed the ball off the court.

With his team’s wing depth severely thinned Saturday, Bernard realized he was carrying a heavier burden.

“Given Jaime’s position and what he brings to the table, one, I knew I had to get on the glass a little more and be a physical presence down there,” said Bernard, who grabbed a team-leading nine rebounds.

If all goes well, the Bruins could be close to full strength next week for their big rematch against Arizona. Cronin said he was hopeful that Juzang could return because he was asymptomatic after testing positive for the virus, meaning Juzang could come out of isolation after five days. He would need to test negative before being cleared to play again.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. finished with 15 points as No. 7 UCLA defeated California 81-57 to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 standings.

Clark’s status remained less certain, though there was a sign of progress with his return to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday to support his teammates. Jaquez might be able to return given he was held out as a precaution following his departure.

“When I took him out,” Cronin recalled, “I said, ‘Are you stiff?’ And he was like, ‘Nah, I’m in pain.’”

Most of the discomfort had been inflicted by the Bruins, allowing their coach to finally get the best of a nagging nemesis.