If it’s important to your fan base, Mick Cronin said last week, it better be important to you.
From several pockets inside Galen Center, the UCLA fans loudly let their coach know how much this meant.
Dozens seated behind the Bruins’ bench roared their approval in the final minutes. An eight-clap broke out in one section of the upper deck.
Yes, this was important. For their team and their coach.
In his first five seasons, Cronin had taken his teams to a Final Four and two more Sweet 16s in the NCAA tournament. He’d won a Pac-12 regular-season championship.
Before the Bruins’ 65-50 victory Saturday night, Cronin had never beaten USC on the Trojans’ home court, the only conference venue in which he had failed to win.
Dylan Andrews and Adem Bona ended that rivalry anxiety with some gritty play, Andrews’ 20 points to go with lockdown defense on Boogie Ellis and Bona’s 10 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks fueling the Bruins’ third win in their last four games.
“Dylan’s been struggling and today, offensively, he gave us a massive lift,” Cronin said.
Bona walked off the court with both arms raised in triumph after the Bruins (9-11 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) built an 11-point halftime lead and never let the Trojans (8-12, 2-7) close within single digits in the second half, keeping the sold-out crowd largely on mute.
After struggling with USC’s zone early, UCLA toughened up, becoming the more physical and disciplined team in outrebounding the Trojans by a 43-29 margin, including 15 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points.
Lazar Stefanovic’s three-pointer with 2:15 left gave the Bruins a 63-45 lead and sent streams of Trojans fans home disappointed in their first rivalry defeat at the Galen Center since 2018. Stefanovic finished with 17 points for the Bruins, who made seven of 16 three-pointers (43.8%) and improved to 3-0 this season when making at least 40% of their shots from beyond the arc.
Ellis, described as a “Bruin killer” by Cronin for his annual highlights against UCLA — including a 31-point outburst on this same court last season — returned from the hamstring injury that had sidelined him the previous three games. Showing no signs of layoff, Ellis started and made two quick three-pointers in helping the Trojans take an early lead.
“He looked like Damian Lillard on the first two shots,” Cronin said, referring to the Milwaukee Bucks All-Star guard.
In recent years, the Trojans had rotated through an annual list of heroes against their rivals here that included Drew Peterson (27 points in 2022), Ethan Anderson (19 points in 2021) and Jonah Mathews (game-winning, step-back three-pointer in 2020).
That’s what tends to happen when you win seven of your last eight games against your rival at home, including five in a row.
Ellis couldn’t make a second appearance on the list, converting just three of 10 shots on his way to eight points. Guard Oziyah Sellers scored 10 points and was the only player in double figures for the Trojans, who got blown out despite a push in which they shot 35.4% to UCLA’s 35.7%. USC star freshman Isaiah Collier remained out because of a hand injury that is expected to sideline him for a few more weeks.
The Bruins were without starting freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel, who was out because of a left hand injury. Freshman forward Brandon Williams started in his place and missed all five shots he took in the first half.
It was the first time both teams entered the rivalry game with losing records since Feb. 25, 2004, but they played winning defense for much of the opening half. USC’s zone flustered UCLA as the Trojans got stop after stop while going on a 10-0 run to take a 20-13 lead.
The rest of the half belonged to the Bruins. Cronin went with some unusual lineups that included seldom-used big men Devin Williams and Aday Mara, helping UCLA end the half on a 24-6 run.
“Those two did a good job and our guys got a little more comfortable,” Cronin said, alluding to the duo combining for six points in the half.
The Bruins offset the Trojans’ seven blocks in the first half, including one by Bronny James that led to a technical foul for following it up with smack talk, with 10 offensive rebounds. Those led to UCLA’s 11-0 advantage in second-chance points and a 37-26 halftime lead.
“Hard to lose,” Cronin said. “You ought to be up.”
The fun was just getting started for the Bruins and their coach. Does that feel good?
“I don’t know how bad traffic is,” Cronin said, “but when I’m in that backyard smoking a Cohiba [cigar] it’s going to feel really good.”