UCLA overcomes a lackluster performance in comeback win over Lafayette

Go big much longer and UCLA risked going home with a loss.

Bruins coach Mick Cronin dared to try it for more than a half against an opponent that spent most of its time freewheeling around the three-point line.

The results of that two-bigs lineup were a growing deficit and a restless crowd. Trailing Lafayette by seven points four minutes into the second half Friday night, the Bruins were left to contemplate the worst loss of the Cronin era, not to mention the end of their 26-game home winning streak that was the longest in the nation.

Into the game came freshman guard Ilane Fibleuil, out went senior center Kenneth Nwuba. The Bruins suddenly had four guards on the court, and a pulse against a team given a 1% chance to win by the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.

After Lafayette momentarily extended its lead to nine, UCLA used its smaller, speedier lineup to lock down the Leopards the rest of the game on the way to a 68-50 victory at Pauley Pavilion.

“I decided to go small and switch everything,” Cronin said of his defensive plan over the game’s final 15 minutes 43 seconds. “I knew at some point tonight it might be a possibility that I had to do it, but it was time.”

The move sparked UCLA’s 24-2 surge lasting more than 13 minutes, soothing the antsy fans and extending the home winning streak to 27 games. Fibleuil played the rest of the game after his re-entry early in the second half, helping the Bruins get the stops they mostly failed to make for the crgame’s first 24 minutes.

The offense started humming too. Repeatedly left open as part of a pack-it-in defense, UCLA sophomore point guard e scored 12 of his career-high 18 points in the second half.

“I just felt like the rim was just open for me,” Andrews said after making seven of nine shots overall to go with four assists and only one turnover. “It felt good every time I shot the ball.”

UCLA freshman guard Sebastian Mack’s career-high 18 points came largely on the strength of nine free throws after he repeatedly got fouled driving into the paint. He also contributed scrappy defense that helped the Bruins (2-0) hold Lafayette (0-2) to 24% shooting in the second half while outscoring the Leopards, 38-17. Lafayette did not make a three-pointer over the game’s final 16 minutes.

All those stops also allowed the Bruins to get out in transition, with all 10 of their fastbreak points coming in the second half.

“Us turning it up on that end,” Mack said of the defense, “I feel like that’s the reason why we stretched it away so much.”

It was a different story in the first half. Missing shots, failing to box out and exerting little energy on defense, UCLA looked outmanned against an opponent that had lost its opener to St. Joseph’s by 21 points.

By halftime, with the Bruins down by three, a few boos filled a half-empty arena that served as a fitting backdrop for a halfhearted effort.

The guard-heavy lineup came to the rescue. Andrews, Mack, Fibleuil and fellow guard Lazar Stefanovic each played at least 15 minutes in the second half, with sophomore center Adem Bona the only big man on the court once Nwuba departed. In another strong-across-the-board showing, Stefanovic tallied 11 points, four rebounds and four steals.

Cronin lauded the 6-foot-6 Fibleuil for his ability to guard both bigs and guards, much like Bruis predecessors Jaylen Clark and Jaime Jaquez Jr. Still recovering from a scooter accident that left a gash on his right hand, Fibleuil took only three shots, making two, on the way to five points.

“It’s tough for him to grip the ball,” Cronin said, “so his shooting is messed up because it’s right where he shoots the ball. It’s tough, you rip your hand open falling on the concrete, it’s hard. You can’t speed up the healing.”

There were some less encouraging developments when it came to the Bruins bigs. Nwuba was a nonfactor in his 14 minutes and Bona struggled mightily four days after logging a career-high 28 points.

Yanked only 71 seconds into the game after committing an offensive foul, the sophomore center later irritated Cronin so badly that the coach could be heard yelling, “Adem, get over here!” from high above the other side of the arena.

Bona finished with six points on one-for-seven shooting along with six rebounds in 26 minutes. Cronin blamed himself for not making Bona fully realize the Leopards would center their defensive efforts around him, requiring him to defer to teammates.

“They’re going to be all over you,” Cronin said of his message to his big man, “and you’re going to have to pass it out and we’re going to have to make shots.”

In the end, the Bruins made enough. They won on a night when it seemed they might not, escaping embarrassment on a court that brought more comfort.

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