Even though it might not have felt like it coming off a deflating loss, the coach reminded his players they had won three of their previous four games. The defeat was understandable given that the Bruins had missed almost every three-point shot they took while playing on the road.
What mattered was staying upbeat, playing with passion, remaining assertive.
The Bruins then went out and brought back the fun. They dived for loose balls, poked away passes for steals and sucked the will out of Oregon State on Saturday afternoon while resembling the team that had gone on that deep NCAA tournament run last spring.
Two days after producing one of the season’s biggest duds, No. 12 UCLA sent itself a get-well card with a 94-55 victory at Gill Coliseum that was every bit as dominant as the score suggested.
“It’s like playing to win being aggressive instead of worrying about losing, outside things you can’t control,” Cronin said after his team shook off its flat showing against Oregon. “I don’t care if everybody goes pro, while you’re here, play your ass off and play with excitement.”
The Bruins’ emotion was palpable, players continually cheering “Defense!” from the bench and standing for much of the second half to celebrate a runaway that ended in the team’s most lopsided victory of the season.
Fans departed in droves during a timeout with 8:20 left in the game after UCLA’s Jaylen Clark followed a steal with a layup to put his team ahead by 35 points. When Bruins guard Peyton Watson quickly came up with another steal and made the first of two free throws, the Bruins had completed a 22-0 run that ruined the Beavers’ senior day.
UCLA (21-6 overall, 13-5 Pac-12) solved its recent shooting woes largely thanks to an inside-out approach that generated open looks on the perimeter. Two days after making only four of 24 three-point attempts against Oregon, the Bruins found their shooting stroke, making 58.6% of their shots and 13 of 20 three-point tries (65%) even with leading scorer Johnny Juzang sidelined by a sprained right ankle.
Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell made eight of 10 shots, including four of six three-point attempts, on the way to a team-high 20 points. UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 17 points and guard Jules Bernard added 16, including a four-point play in which Bernard made a three-pointer while getting smacked in the face.
Jaquez produced a throwback performance, aggressively scoring around the basket in a reminder of the days before he had to wear protective ankle braces. He added a corner three-pointer in an encouraging sign given his recent struggles from long distance.
Repeatedly going to Jaquez inside was a focus of the game plan against the Beavers (3-24, 1-16), who have lost their last 14 games while going winless in 2022.
“Part of our run last year was, we made sure we made Jaime a big part of our offense, an adjustment late in the season,” Cronin said. “Because of his injuries, he hasn’t practiced and we got away from that and I said, ‘As long as he’s out there, I’m going back to him.’ ”
Jaquez said he was also inspired by a pregame speech given by assistant coach Darren Savino, who put the team’s recent struggles in perspective by mentioning Ukraine’s deadly fight to defend its homeland against Russia.
“He brought that up, made a great point — ‘We’re here to play basketball, let’s enjoy it,’ ” Jaquez said, recalling what Savino had told the team. “ ‘Let’s appreciate what we have right now and let’s go have some fun.’ I think that’s what we did today.”
Much of the fun was courtesy of the Bruins’ hot shooting. They built a 43-28 halftime lead on the strength of making six of 11 three-point shots while shooting 57.1% overall. Cronin acknowledged afterward that his team would need to stay hot to enjoy another lengthy postseason run.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball well for us to be an elite team, just the way we’re configured as a team,” Cronin said. “We’re not one of the biggest, strongest, most powerful teams in the country. We’re a four-out team for the most part and we’ve got to shoot the ball well.”
The one guy inside, Cody Riley, moved back into the starting lineup, replacing Myles Johnson, and quickly contributed by drawing two charges in the first 97 seconds. He finished with 13 points and four rebounds, joining in on the three-point barrage in the second half when he sank a shot from beyond the arc.
It was a strong statement from a team that had lost four of its previous five road games, looking like it had abandoned the winning recipe that sparked so much fun a year ago.
“It’s easy to forget that through a long season, we obviously need to have constant reminders,” Jaquez said. “We’re here to have some fun, and when you play hard you have fun.”