Men’s basketball beats Southern Utah to net best defensive start to season in 9 years
Junior guard Chris Smith scored a career-high 20 points in UCLA men’s basketball’s victory over Southern Utah on Monday. Smith also picked up a block and a steal in 27 minutes on the court. (Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin staff)
By Sam Connon
Nov. 18, 2019 11:39 p.m.
The Bruin defense continues to hit benchmarks and win games.
UCLA men’s basketball (4-0) never trailed in its 76-61 victory over Southern Utah (2-2) on Monday. The Bruins took their first double-digit lead of the night with 13 minutes 55 seconds to play in the first half and they never looked back, notching season highs in blocks and steals in the process.
Monday marks the first time since February 2015 that UCLA has held its opponent to fewer than 70 points in four straight games, and the 241 total points allowed by the Bruins are the fewest in their first four games of a season since 2010.
The Thunderbirds scored just six points in the first 13-plus minutes of the game, making it the Bruins’ most efficient defensive stretch under first-year coach Mick Cronin.
“As we showed in the first 10 minutes or so, defense is definitely our strong point,” said junior guard Chris Smith. “When we’re locked in, helping each other, talking to each other, we make teams look like they can’t score – six points in 10 minutes is unheard of.”
UCLA led 25-6 entering the final minutes of the first half, but Southern Utah went on an 11-2 run to close the gap to 10. Cronin said the Bruins got lazy on the defensive end after their early lead and the team has to work on that moving forward.
“Once we got a big lead, our mind wasn’t on defense anymore,” Cronin said. “And we’ve got to grow up to where we can be locked in for extended periods of time.”
But Cronin wasn’t just critical of UCLA’s defense late in the first half. He also said turnovers were costly and prevented the Bruins from running away with the game.
“We were sloppy,” Cronin said. “I’ve coached a lot of teams (that) went to the NCAA tournament simply because we didn’t turn the ball over. … You have no chance to win road games if you turn the ball over.”
UCLA turned the ball over 15 times after doing so 17 times against UNLV on Friday, but the Bruins were able to force 17 Thunderbird giveaways, turning those into 18 points.
The head-to-head battles in steals, blocks, rebounds and field goal percentage also ended in UCLA’s favor, thanks in large part to its presence down low.
All three of UCLA’s big men – redshirt sophomores Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, along with redshirt senior Alex Olesinski – picked up multiple blocks in the game. The Bruins notched 10 as a team on the night, their most since Nov. 16, 2018, against Saint Francis.
Hill and Riley made up the starting frontcourt for the second game in a row Monday night, and Hill said he has enjoyed the company of another physical big beside him.
“That’s my brother,” Hill said. “It’s a great feeling being out there playing with him. Yeah, it takes the load off because a lot of (teams) might send two guys to box me out, so, on the other side, he’s going to get the ball – and vice versa – so it’s a great thing.”
The duo co-led the Bruins with eight boards apiece, helping UCLA set a new season high with 42 rebounds on the night. Hill’s 17 points were second on the team only to Smith, who paced the Bruins with a career-high 20 points.
But despite career nights from individual players and a stifling opening 13 minutes on the defensive end, Cronin said he expected more out of his team.
“We’re nowhere near the machine we need to become,” Cronin said. “I’m a guy looking at teams like Alabama, Clemson, the (New England) Patriots – they are just machines. We have to become the machine, never look at the scoreboard. You’ve got to play 40 minutes the right way all the time.”