After three games, the UCLA Bruins have three wins, had three different leading scorers and had two career highs. In last night’s 71-54 win over the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the star was Chris Smith. James Williams in the Orange County Register writes:
Smith made strides toward becoming the type of player Cronin envisions on Friday night, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and two steals in the Bruins’ 71-54 victory over UNLV at Pauley Pavilion. . . .
Defensively, Smith had seven deflections before halftime, a stat Cronin considers critical to team success. Despite the performance, Cronin would still like to see Smith play with more aggression.
“I’m a nice guy,” Smith said, smiling. “I like to dive on the floor and I just like going for the ball, man. Between the lines, I just do what I have to do to help my team.” . . .
Smith helped deliver that energy, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the first half to ensure the Bruins wouldn’t trail at halftime for the third consecutive game, a trend they’d be wise to shake before they travel to the Maui Invitational later this month with a chance to face No. 5 Kansas.
In addition to getting his career high last night, after three games Smith leads UCLA in points and free throw percentage and is second in rebounding, minutes played, three-point percentage and steals. For years we have heard that the NBA scouts like Smith’s body. Under Coach Cronin, they are going to start loving his game. Cronin is focusing Smith on his motto that “we don’t negotiate effort.” In his comments after the game, Cronin said:
If you were to ask what I’m happiest about with Chris, I’d say he had seven deflections and eight rebounds. If he takes good shots and takes his time, he’s a good offensive player. . . . For most of these guys, my big change for them is their intensity, Chris especially. He’s one of the nicest guys of all-time. Laid back doesn’t cut it between the lines.”
That intensity showed on the defensive end. Aver at the LA Times, Ben Bolch writes:
The Bruins continued embodying their new coach’s defensive ethos Friday night, engineering a 71-54 win over Nevada Las Vegas with energy and effort on their own end of the floor and offensive efficiency. . . .
They looked like a perfect match during long stretches Friday, with Cronin’s renewed defensive emphasis pairing nicely with UCLA’s explosive offensive flair. The Bruins outshot the Rebels from the field, 49% to 39%, they outscored UNLV off turnovers 25-13, they held a 35-27 edge in rebounds, and they hit three more three-pointers than their Mountain West Conference guests.
In the first half, the Bruins capitalized on their suffocating defense. Their first points, a corner three-pointer from guard Tyger Campbell, came after a UNLV turnover. Three more Rebels giveaways after that fueled a 14-0 UCLA run. Later, the Bruins went on a 17-4 scoring spurt to open a 22-point lead. The Rebels would never get closer than nine the rest of the night.
UCLA men’s basketball (3-0) defeated UNLV (1-3) 71-54 in its first wire-to-wire victory of the season. Utilizing an early 14-0 run, the Bruins never trailed and held a double-digit lead for a total of 33:29 on the night.
But UCLA didn’t just build its lead by scoring – it did so by capitalizing off turnovers.
The Bruins forced the Runnin’ Rebels into 10 first half turnovers, turning them into 18 points on the other end. UCLA recorded five blocks and five steals in the opening frame after picking up one steal and zero blocks in the first half against UC Santa Barbara on Sunday.
The 54 Rebel points were the fewest the Bruins have allowed in a game since Dec. 31, 2017, against Washington, when UCLA won 74-53.
The last word today goes not to a UCLA player but the only player on UNLV that was seemingly able to score, Donnie Tilman. After the game, Tilman discussed the Bruins’ new defense:
UCLA has a really great defense. They have a really great body of work over there.
That is something not heard from a UCLA opponent in years.
While the team has had different leading scorers every game, their consistently improving intensity and defense will make UCLA a tough opponent.