The UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team took the floor to play the Long Beach State 49ers with a full tank of gas and the intensity meters peaking as the push began to establish a new identity under first-year head coach Mick Cronin. And it looked every bit the first game it was with a strange, shapeless sort of rhythm establishing itself as an offensive struggle of epic proportions hampered the Bruins for most of the night with the defense working hard to keep UCLA within striking distance.
But it was an improbable 10-2 UCLA run down the game’s final few furlongs—and fifth-year senior Prince Ali knocking down a clutch three-point shot to extend UCLA’s lead to 63-58 with 1:20 to play—that buried Long Beach State’s heels deep in the suddenly shifting sands.
Despite trailing for more than 35 minutes, the Bruins sunk their free throws, including three-of-four from sophomore David Singleton as the game reached its crisis, with the team hitting 42 points for the second half after scoring only 27 in a bogged down first.
Just as the trepidatious fans at Pauley Pavilion began to sense a disaster, the Bruins hammered home bucket after bucket late, including a fine spinning move in the post finished with a kiss off the glass by redshirt sophomore Cody Riley to solidify a 69-65 victory to touch off the Cronin era in Westwood.
The Bruins defense did its part too, locking down the final few possessions against a Long Beach State team that had been on fire in the first half but just luke warm in the second.
A final three-point shot at the horn got Long Beach State to 65 points, while the game was effectively over at 69-62.
The Bruins were led by three likely stars who will have to log a lot of big nights for their teammates if UCLA is to have any shot at the postseason.
Redshirt freshman Tyger Campbell, who has looked ready to make up for lost time after sitting out last year with a knee injury, led the team with 15 points, five assists and five rebounds on an efficient shooting night that included three trips to the free throw line after attacking the rim on meticulous dribble drives.
Riley was next up with 14 points on 7-12 shooting and three rebounds, several grabbed in the clutch, followed by Chris Smith, who shot 50 percent from the floor, was 4-of-4 from the free throw line, and scored 13 points overall. Both Riley and Smith notched mammoth blocks around the rim to turn away Long Beach State attackers in highlight reel fashion.
Fifth-year senior Alex Olesinksi did not stuff the stat sheet, but made critical contributions down the stretch defending, rebounding, knocking down free throws and assisting on several critical baskets during UCLA’s scoring spurts.
Ali, who rattled in the late three, played as he always does for UCLA, with a lot of heart and grit, even on a bum ankle, and refused to let his teammates down in the clutch. Ali finished with 10 points, two rebounds, an assist and one massive block at the rim that brought the anxious crowd to its feet.
Shareef O’Neal, back after a frightening heart condition which kept him out all last year and left him with a memento of a scar down his chest, had a rough first game for UCLA.
In limited minutes, O’Neal badly bricked a three-point shot immediately after checking in, and missed all three of his shots from the floor. He did add three rebounds and a steal to the effort but this season is going to be a learning experience for the redshirt freshman.
Sophomore Jules Bernard kept his performance from last year consistent, wearing bizarrely short shorts and a game to match the look. Bernard again appeared out of control and out of sorts, hitting one nice up-and-under move in the paint that he finished with a free throw, but, then, he missed his next five shots including one which was viciously stuffed at the rim. He also managed to turn the ball over before being pulled for Ali.
It was clear the player rotations have not been established and that this team is looking for an identity on offense. They played hard for 40 minutes but, at times, looked baffled and out of ideas in the half court. Their play did pick up as the game got into the championship rounds as they began finding ways to score which was a positive development.
Early in the first half, the landscape looked bad for the Bruins as the team committed 10 turnovers and shot 39 percent from the floor and just 16 percent from deep with Campbell hitting both of the Bruins’ 12 three-point attempts.
Compounding the poor offensive performance, Long Beach State was hotter than the sand on a mid-summer day, shooting 52 percent from the floor and 50 percent from deep (6-12), taking a confident 33-27 lead into the locker room.
The 49ers had shot beautifully from the floor and abysmally from the free throw line,where they went a wretched 1-8 (12.5-percent), allowing the Bruins to remain closer than they probably should have been. UCLA, for its part, was 3-6 from the free throw line in the first half.
For the 49ers, it was the two-headed hydra of Chance Hunter and Michael Carter III, both sophomore slashers, eating up the Bruins. Hunter tallied 16 points, shooting 6-6 from the floor, while Carter scored eight, giving the pair 24 of the team’s 33 first half points.
Carter would finish with 20 points while Hunter cooled off in the second half, scoring only three to reach 19 for the game.
It was not bad defense from the Bruins. The 49ers just had several individual players finding ways to get buckets. For the half, Long Beach State assisted on only two of their scores as UCLA’s defense forced contested one-on-one shots, normally a winning formula over the long run.
The one place UCLA let down defensively was to end the half. The Bruins had briefly taken the lead at 27-26 with three minutes to play, but Long Beach State immediately went on a 6-for-8 tear to end the half leading 33-27. The 49ers had led by as many as nine and trailed by as many as two over the first 20 minutes.
The Bruins did not start the second half with any obvious sense of urgency either as the offense still appeared to be searching for its rhythm and identity. But the defense held steady as Long Beach State cooled down from the perimeter and the teams began to slowly go back and forth, shooting a combined 2-12 over the first four minutes.
UCLA was noticeably cognizant and purposeful at boxing out at both ends and finished the game with a decisive 38-29 rebounding advantage, including a 14-6 edge on the offensive glass.