UCLA coach Mick Cronin not happy, struggles to find positives after Bruins blow big lead in close win vs. USC

LOS ANGELES — The UCLA Bruins got an ugly win against in-state rival USC on Thursday, and there are two different ways to look at the 60-58 Bruins victory at Pauley Pavilion.

The Trojans climbed back from an 18-point deficit and made the last minute of the game quite interesting, but No. 10 UCLA was able to hang on. One could argue that the Bruins surviving a game they could’ve easily lost is a positive outcome because, after all, a win is a win. But on the other hand, there are those who did not see the result in a positive light – UCLA coach Mick Cronin is one of those people.

“Do I look happy? No reconciliation,” Cronin said after UCLA escaped with the victory that was earned when USC’s Boogie Ellis missed a late jumper that could have tied the game.

The Bruins controlled the first half of the game and entered the break with a 44-26 lead. However, sometimes numbers are deceiving.

“What I talked about at halftime was we need to worry about defense. I saw it coming in the first half,” Cronin said. “We took some shots that were just ridiculous for no reason, when we had a chance to bury it. We took a lot of selfish shots.”

The Bruins went 5-for-22 in the second half and went from 15:52 until 7:20 without scoring a single point. Cronin was asked if the team could grow from this game, and the coach couldn’t have said “no” any quicker.

“No. No. You can grow the wrong way,” he said. “You’ve got guys playing selfish, not worried about defense, taking bad shots, letting a team back in the game. You can grow from it. You can grow to the bench.”

The Bruins (14-2, 5-0 Pac-12) entered the game with the seventh best scoring margin nationally (+18). Their two losses this season came from matches against Illinois and Baylor – both ranked at the time of the games. However, the USC game was not the first almost-loss to an unranked opponent for the Bruins.

Last week, UCLA barely edged Washington State 67-66 after overcoming a 12-point deficit. The Bruins were far from perfect in that game, shooting at 26.7% from the field in the first half, but Cronin had a different reaction than he did after the USC game.

“The guys showed a lot of grit and toughness,” Cronin said after the win over Washington State.

So what led to such a different reaction from the coach after the USC game? The Bruins played worse, not better, as the game against the Trojans progressed. Cronin was not ok with seeing the Trojans outscore his team 28-16 in the paint, and definitely not happy with his team only scoring 16 points in the second half. Senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said their subpar performance was because of a lack of focus.

“I feel like what he means when he says that we can’t grow from this is that it wasn’t anything necessarily basketball related,” Jaquez, who has scored in double figures every game this season, said on Thursday. “We just didn’t come out and didn’t play the way we normally play… it’s focus, and we just weren’t focused.”

The way UCLA normally plays is more disciplined and balanced. Cronin has a reputation of being a strong defensive coach, but UCLA is solid on both sides of the floor as the offense and defense both rank in the top 10 on KenPom.com.

The Bruins have won most of their games by nine or more points, with the exception of the Washington State and USC games. Jaquez leads this effort with 16.9 points per game while shooting at 52.6% from the field, but the offense is deeper than him. Six Bruins average at least eight points per game — although Amari Bailey is currently dealing with a foot injury.

Cronin said earlier this week that “the biggest thing that would draw my ire is a turnover,” which is a message the team has heard loud and clear as the Bruins only average 9.7 turnovers per game — fourth best in the nation. Even during the USC game, the Bruins made sure to keep that in the back of their minds as they only had eight turnovers.

Cronin has set high expectations for the program since he took over in 2019. He earned the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award during his first season, reached the program’s first Final Four appearance since 2008 during his second year, and saw another Sweet Sixteen appearance in his third year.

As the stat sheet and final scores show, the Bruins are already on the right path to have another strong season under Cronin, but the game against their in-state rivals was perhaps a good reminder not to get too comfortable. They will have a week to get their minds right as they prepare to host Utah on Jan. 12.

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