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    UCLA overcomes gaffes, pulls away to beat Lafayette
    • November 11, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — At least UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin is consistent.

    Following each mistake one of his players committed on Friday night, the head coach was quick to stare down his bench, seeking a replacement.

    Constant subbing persisted throughout UCLA’s 68-50 victory over Lafayette, producing a game that lacked flow, one marred by unnecessary fouls and turnovers that kept the Leopards lurking.

    That is, until UCLA broke away with an 18-0 run (part of a longer 30-4 stretch) highlighted by a stifling defensive effort that completely cut off the Leopards’ water for a 10-minute stretch in the second half, while sophomore guard Dylan Andrews’ 3-point shooting sparked the Bruins’ offense.

    Andrews (7 for 9 from the field) and guard Sebastian Mack each had a team-high 18 points.

    “I knew we probably should have started small,” Cronin said, looking back on a starting lineup that again featured centers Adem Bona and Kenneth Nwuba, while Mack moved to the bench. “So we switched it. I didn’t think we would get anything out of that. Then you’re going to say ‘you’re absolutely nuts, you could have lost.’ Maybe, I am.”

    In this early part of UCLA’s season, when headlines are dominated by the departure of an old, and quite successful, regime of players, and the arrival of a budding, and, well, unknown one, trial and error are expectedly commonplace.

    UCLA (2-0) seemingly approached Friday’s game as a platform for Cronin to meticulously tinker, and the gaffes laden throughout a game in which the Bruins didn’t lead until the 11:37 mark of the second half showed why that testing is crucial.

    But instead, what he got was a tight game that, in the end, weeded out which players could have a spot in the Bruins’ rotation moving forward.

    Nobody was safe from the experimenting in the first half.

    On the Bruins’ first two possessions, center Adem Bona attempted a wayward hook shot and committed an offensive foul, turning the ball over to Lafayette (1-1). Despite leading the Bruins with 28 points in a victory over Saint Francis (Pa.) on Monday night, he was swapped in favor of Brandon Williams 71 seconds into the game. Then, after fouling the screener on the following possession, Williams made way for Ilane Fibleuil.

    Cronin had inserted sophomore guard Will McClendon into the starting lineup for Mack, but McClendon’s timidness saw Mack reclaim his spot.

    Mack started the second half, and his aggressive play was the antithesis of McClendon’s hesitance.

    “He’s a dog,” Andrews said of Mack. “Just having the energy, he’s just like me. We both are energy guys and we both take pride on defense.”

    That intensity proved to be necessary as the Bruins shot 34.6% from the field in the first half. Guard Lazar Stefanovic – who Cronin has harped on time and again to “be more aggressive,” as the Utah transfer put it when he spoke at media day – remained deferential, shooting 1 for 7.

    With 12 minutes remaining in the second half, however, he began to force the action.

    Stefanovic hit a pull-up jumper, followed it with a corner 3-pointer that trickled off every inch of the rim, and then facilitated a possession that found Andrews for a 3-pointer that put UCLA ahead by seven with 9:30 remaining.

    “Anything that can help my team win, I try to do,” Stefanovic said. “We have a young team, so we need a lot of leadership.”

    Cronin has pushed Stefanovic to provide that direction.

    On Friday, as his confidence increased in the second half, motivation followed as he clapped at his teammates, encouraging them on both sides of the ball.

    Andrews, who scored the first six points and was a trusted source of offense throughout Friday’s game, assumed an alpha-like scoring role as “he just took what the defense gave him,” Cronin said.

    “They just weren’t guarding him,” he added. “Dylan made a lot of good decisions tonight.”

    As the offense heated up, the Bruins’ defense traded avoidable fouls for disciplined closeouts and Lafayette went without a field goal for an 11:17 stretch. It was a man-to-man that emphasized switching each perimeter ball screen to contest 3-point shots, one made possible by Bona’s ability to stick with driving guards and a set that Fibleuil flourished in.

    “Winning players come in all different types of packages,” Cronin said of Fibleuil, who had a team-high plus-minus of 27. “That’s why he was a key recruit for us.”

    Fibleuil saw the most minutes of any of UCLA’s seven freshmen as rotations tightened in the second half. Along with the Frenchman, the mainstays that gelled with one another were Bona, Stefanovic, Andrews and Mack. It’s a notable observation that will need monitoring as UCLA’s season progresses into games against ranked opponents, ones in which they can’t afford to test who can hang.

    After their poor first-half shooting, the Bruins missed their first six second-half shots before hitting 13 of 19 (68%) to end the game.

    Eric Sondberg led the Leopards with 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting and Kyle Jenkins added 11 points and 10 rebounds.


    UCLA hosts Long Island University on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

    “Once we started switching everything, it kind of eliminated them. They didn’t make a three the last 17 minutes. They had seven made threes.”

    Coach Cronin, on UCLA’s second-half adjustments on Friday

    — UCLA Men’s Basketball (@UCLAMBB) November 11, 2023

    “Shots sometimes don’t go in. But as a shooter, you have to keep your confidence high and keep shooting. Eventually, they’re going to fall. I think my teammates were trusting me.”

    Lazar Stefanovic, after UCLA’s 68-50 win

    — UCLA Men’s Basketball (@UCLAMBB) November 11, 2023

    ​ Orange County Register