The Bruins found a way to win.
UCLA men’s basketball (1-0) squeezed past Long Beach State (0-1) in its season opener Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion, defeating the Beach 69-65 in a game that they only led for a total of 7:07.
The Bruins trailed from the 1:48 mark of the first half all the way until the 3:34 mark of the second half, and they didn’t take the lead back until there was just 2:14 remaining. Coach Mick Cronin said while his team is far from a finished product, he was happy to see his team prevail in a hard-fought game rather than a runaway victory.
“(Long Beach State) hit some really hard shots, especially early in the game – which was probably good for us,” Cronin said. “If you can be in a dog fight and win, you get a lot more out of it than if you end up just blowing some team out that can’t play with you at all.”
UCLA’s defense paved the way for the Bruins’ second-half comeback, holding the Beach to 32 points after giving up 33 in the first half. UCLA also forced 15 turnovers in the game and held Long Beach State to just 4-of-9 shooting in the final 5:39 of the contest.
Cronin has made it clear that effort on the defensive end is a focal point for the Bruins this season, said junior guard Chris Smith.
“Last thing coach said before we went out before tipoff was, ‘Be the first team on the floor,’” Smith said. “That just goes a long way. Defense is always something we can always control and playing harder than other teams is something we can always control, so we try to do both every night.”
While the defense helped secure the victory, the offense was mostly out of sync from tipoff until the final buzzer. UCLA shot just 39.6% from the field and 5-of-19 from beyond the 3-point line, starting 2-of-15 from deep before hitting three of its final four attempts.
The Bruins lost their top-three scorers from last season – Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Moses Brown – to the NBA in the offseason, and Cronin said his players will have to step up and score collectively given that the team doesn’t have a go-to option on offense.
“The three guys who took the most shots on this team – by far – are gone,” Cronin said. “So it’s just going to take us time to find a rhythm offensively as a team and get young guys comfortable.”
UCLA managed to get to the free throw line 31 times in the game, with 25 of those attempts coming in the second half. Seventeen of the Bruins’ final 30 points came via the charity stripe and – after missing six of their first 11 attempts – they made 17 of their next 20 to win the game.
UCLA’s top-four scorers Wednesday all broke double-digits, but redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley was the only one in that group to shoot above 50% on the night.
Redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell led all Bruin scorers with 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting, including a 3-of-5 night from distance. However, Cronin said he wasn’t pleased with himself for playing Campbell 38 of 40 minutes in the guard’s collegiate debut.
“(Campbell’s) a really good player but he’s a young kid,” Cronin said. “He’s never played college basketball and I’m asking him to play a lot of minutes. He’s going to have a great career, but (I’m) just asking a lot of him right now.”
Wednesday’s season-opener was also an emotional one for redshirt senior guard Prince Ali, who almost wasn’t able to play because of an ankle injury he suffered in the team’s exhibition game against Stanislaus State on Oct. 30.
Ali hit a 3 to give the Bruins a five-point advantage with 90 seconds left in the game, and he said after the game that it meant a lot to him to be able to deliver for his school and the fans.
“I guess I’m a little sentimental now – I love UCLA,” Ali said. “It was a great crowd,” he said. “They helped us late and they brought their energy up and brought our energy up so shout out to them.”
UCLA will return to action when it plays host to UC Santa Barbara at 4 p.m. on Sunday at Pauley Pavilion.