In case UCLA was tempted to linger in the giddy afterglow of its biggest victory of the season, an unexpected setback before tipoff Thursday triggered unease.
Leading scorer Johnny Juzang, one of only three players to avoid being placed in COVID-19 protocols, was no longer part of that exclusive club after a random test came back positive. Further thinning the team’s depth, top defender Jaylen Clark was sidelined for a second consecutive game while stuck in concussion protocol.
Playing short-handed has become the norm for the Bruins. Their opening-night starting lineup has walked out to midcourt for the opening jump ball only seven times because of injuries and illnesses.
Fortunately for UCLA, another pattern has emerged: It continues to persevere no matter who’s in or out.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin plugged David Singleton into his starting lineup for the first time this season and the seventh-ranked Bruins rolled along smoothly during an 81-57 victory over California at Pauley Pavilion that served as further evidence of the team’s depth and resolve.
Two nights after razing Arizona on national television before a nearly packed arena, UCLA put in far more unglamorous work in front of a smallish crowd. It counted just the same in the Pac-12 standings, where the Bruins (15-2, 7-1) moved into sole possession of first place.
“My message to them is we’ve got to try to chase greatness,” Cronin said after his team won its fifth consecutive game, “because we can’t just play with spirit because Arizona’s in here, our fans are in here — although our students were great again tonight, they’re the best, I love them, but it’s got to be about us and what we’re chasing.”
The drama didn’t even make it to halftime. Sparked by Jules Bernard’s back-to-back three-pointers, UCLA used a 25-9 spurt after falling behind by one point in the early going to seize control. Singleton was a factor from the opening moments, snagging a steal on Cal’s initial possession and burying a three-pointer for the game’s first points.
Guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. finished with 15 points to lead five Bruins in double figures scoring and tied a career high with four steals. The Bruins shot 52.6% and were even stronger defensively, their 14 steals the most in Cronin’s three seasons with the team.
Cronin said Juzang felt fine despite the positive test that caused him to miss his first game this season after a scoring spree in which he’s averaged 22.6 points over his last five games.
“He’s highly disappointed,” Cronin said of Juzang not being able to play.
Juzang will also sit out the Bruins game against Stanford on Saturday while stuck in isolation, but he could return for UCLA’s rematch against third-ranked Arizona next week in Tucson based on Pac-12 health and safety guidelines that were updated last month.
According to those guidelines, asymptomatic players can exit isolation after five days but should continue to wear a mask around others for five more days. They can return to games without a mask if they receive one negative PCR test or two negative antigen tests 24 hours apart.
Clark’s availability going forward is less clear. He was sidelined before the season by a concussion, giving the team’s medical staff extra reason to be cautious with his return. Cronin also has a history of being conservative with his players to safeguard their health.
“Not soon,” Cronin said when asked about Clark’s return. “Definitely not Saturday.”
Forward Sam Alajiki scored 11 points as the only player in double figures for Cal (9-11, 2-7), whose slide toward the bottom of the conference continues. The Golden Bears made just six of 21 three-pointers (28.6%) on the way to their sixth loss in a row and 10th consecutive setback in the series against UCLA.
With their depth depleted, the Bruins gave extra minutes to backups Peyton Watson and Jake Kyman. Both made the most of the opportunity, Kyman scoring a season-high 10 points and Watson using his long arms to corral a high lob from Kyman before laying it into the basket on the way to 12 points and six rebounds.
“At the end of the day,” Watson said, “it’s all about who plays the hardest, who wants it the most, and I want it.”
UCLA reserve Russell Stong added one final highlight, hoisting his first shot of the season in the final seconds. It was a three-pointer that dropped through the net, sending the crowd and his towel-flapping teammates on the bench into a frenzy.
After making just the second shot of his career and first in two seasons, Stong held up three fingers while retreating on defense. His teammates rushed over to mob him after the final buzzer, a day that started with considerable worry ending with smiles all around.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.