LOS ANGELES — The UCLA men’s basketball team jogged out of the tunnel and onto the Pauley Pavilion court while the school’s fight song was blaring from the speakers. That moment alone is usually iconic for a program that has won 11 national championships.
But there were no fans to greet the fifth-ranked Bruins this time. Precautions due to COVID-19 meant only family members of the players were permitted to attend Thursday night’s game against Long Beach State.
The occasional spattering of cheers and claps could be heard, but it was drowned out by the fake crowd noise that was being piped into the arena. It was an awkward setting for the hastily arranged game between two teams that already met this season.
Neither UCLA nor LBSU could be picky, though. The Bruins hadn’t played since a Dec. 11 win at Marquette and Long Beach had gone more than three weeks without playing before its Wednesday night game against an NAIA opponent. UCLA coach Mick Cronin was desperate for his team to play any opponent this week after a three-week layoff and a Pac-12 game at Cal looming this weekend. He even joked that he was willing to take on the Lakers if they could.
So, the 96-78 victory over Long Beach (4-8) was a good thing for the Bruins (9-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12), right? Not quite.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. sprained his right ankle near the end of the first half and watched the rest of the game from the bench with his ankle heavily wrapped. The Wooden Award candidate’s availability is now questionable for Saturday’s game against the Bears (9-5, 2-1).
“He turned his ankle, so hopefully it’s not that bad. He can walk, so that’s a start,” Cronin said of Jaquez.
Jules Bernard led UCLA with a season-high 22 points and five assists, including four 3-pointers on 7-for-12 shooting in 28 minutes. Johnny Juzang had 18 points in 22 minutes, Tyger Campbell had 12 points and 10 assists, Jaylen Clark had nine points (highlighted by his first 3-pointer of the season) and Jaquez finished with eight points.
Bernard scored 22 the last time UCLA hosted Long Beach State, too, a 100-79 win on Nov. 15, when Bernard and Juzang combined for 47 points.
“I don’t know what it is about this certain matchup, but I just took my time tonight,” Bernard said. “When we caught our second wind, I think we caught a rhythm too.”
The game provided a small microcosm of UCLA’s season thus far: two steps forward, one step back. Senior forward Cody Riley, who sprained his left MCL four minutes into the season opener, finally returned and had eight points, two rebounds and three fouls in 20 minutes, but Jaquez got hurt.
“We were desperate to get out on the court, mentally and physically,” Cronin said. “You gotta play games to find a rhythm, especially Cody Riley, who just played his first game of the year. You can only simulate so much in practice.”
“He’s got to get his legs back. He had a lot of good flashes but he was huffing and puffing at times.”
UCLA had a rocky first half, which was to be expected. The Bruins missed eight of nine shots at one point, fouled two Long Beach shooters on 3-point attempts, Jaquez had the ball stolen from him in the open court, which resulted in a wide-open dunk for LBSU, and Myles Johnson missed an uncontested point-blank layup.
“It’s like the start of another season,” said Juzang, who said he didn’t get COVID-19 – one of three scholarship players who weren’t infected.
Despite their sluggish start, the Bruins used an unselfish approach to take a 45-29 lead into halftime. Ten UCLA players scored in the first half: Bernard had nine points and Jaquez and Juzang each had eight.
UCLA made five of its first seven shots in the second half, including a pair of 3-pointers, to extend the lead to 58-41. A Jaylen Clark 3-pointer gave the Bruins their largest lead of the second half, 69-46, with just over 12 minutes left.
“(Long Beach State) made some guarded shots, which was good, because it made us keep playing the whole 40 minutes, which we needed,” Cronin said. “I don’t think we’d have any chance Saturday if we didn’t play this game. I was convinced we were in deep trouble.”
LBSU was led by Jadon Jones, who had a career-high 27 points on 7-of-13 shooting and a 10-for-11 showing from the free-throw line. LBSU will play its third game this week when it hosts Big West Conference foe Hawaii (4-5) on Saturday at 1 p.m., and LBSU coach Dan Monson was pleased for a chance to get his team more work before that one.
“Having the game itself was so valuable,” Monson said, “and then to have adversity and get behind and keep fighting, I thought we grew mentally a lot. Some of these games, it’s easy to let those get away, and I thought our guys fought and tried to stay together a lot better than they did the first time we were here.”
Long Beach is scheduled to host three consecutive league games over the next week, and won’t have to leave the greater L.A. area until Jan. 29 when it travels to UC Davis.
“All of a sudden we have league coming, and we’re trying to get ready, and we don’t know if we’re ready because we haven’t played for six games,” Monson said.
Cronin thanked LBSU for switching its game against Westcliff to a night earlier to accommodate the Bruins. He said UCLA has guaranteed Long Beach a date on the Bruins’ schedule next season.
MORE SCHEDULE CHAOS?
More than just a cliché in the age of COVID-19, the Bruins are taking things day by day. Oregon and Oregon State are scheduled to visit next week, but both programs are dealing with coronavirus issues. There are still games against Arizona, Arizona State and Stanford to be made up, too. If UCLA can’t play a Pac-12 opponent next week, the Bruins likely will be working the phones again to line up another nonconference foe.
News services contributed to this story.