Living dangerously continues to work for UCLA against some of the worst teams on its schedule.
The Bruins walked off the court Thursday night still holding the distinction of being unbeaten in Pac-12 Conference play after surviving another scare.
Jules Bernard made a big three-pointer to make his 21st birthday especially memorable and the Bruins held on for a 61-57 victory over California at Haas Pavilion that gave UCLA its seventh consecutive triumph.
UCLA (12-2 overall, 8-0 Pac-12) is off to its best start in conference play since it opened 9-0 in what was the Pac-10 during the 1982-83 season.
Cody Riley led the Bruins with 13 points and Bernard added 11 for the Bruins, including a three-pointer that gave UCLA a 59-55 lead with 2:08 left.
The Bruins withstood a barrage of three-pointers from Cal (7-9, 2-7), which made 10 of 22 shots from beyond the arc but only three of 10 in the second half. Golden Bears forward Grant Anticevich tied a UCLA opponent record by making all five of his three-pointers.
Almost upset in its most recent game by last-place Washington, UCLA got the stops it needed in the final minutes against Cal, which looked much crisper than the team that had lost to the Bruins by 20 points in early December at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins avoided the same fate of the last UCLA team that won its first seven conference games before playing the Golden Bears in the Bay Area. It took a triple-double from Cal’s Jason Kidd to end UCLA’s perfect start in January 1994 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, sending some of the crowd of 15,033 streaming onto the court.
There was no chance of that Thursday in an arena featuring only a few thousand cardboard cutouts of Cal luminaries, fans and their pets because of health restrictions related to the pandemic.
Cal’s leading scorer, Matt Bradley, participated in warmups but missed a fifth consecutive game because of an ankle injury, taking his averages of 17.8 points and 4.7 rebounds off the board. The Bruins were also shorthanded, playing their sixth game since senior guard Chris Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The UCLA offense that was among the most efficient in the nation and had averaged 83.5 points over the team’s last four games was hardly humming on the way to a 36-32 halftime deficit. The Bruins had two inbound passes stolen and failed to sustain the momentum they built after a Riley spin move for a layup gave them an early 9-3 lead.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks about the Bruins’ 61-57 win over Cal on Thursday.
The biggest issue came courtesy of UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell, who threw a lob out of bounds and was uncharacteristically sloppy on the way to three turnovers and zero assists while also committing two fouls in the first half.
The Bruins had arrived in the Bay Area seeking some significant defensive improvement, coach Mick Cronin acknowledging that his team would have to make up for its lack of explosiveness by playing smarter and learning how to better offset its opponent’s strengths.
That didn’t happen in the early going, when Cal kept finding open shooters beyond the three-point line thanks to zippy ball movement and seven-of-12 shooting (58.3%) from beyond the arc.