Adem Bona can always take Mick Cronin out of a grumpy mood, whether it’s by flashing a wide smile or throwing an arm around his coach’s shoulder and telling him everything is going to be all right.
UCLA’s ceaselessly happy big man generated delight Thursday night with an evolving talent.
Bona was a force around the basket in the game’s early going against Utah, the freshman powering in for a putback, rising for a mini-hook shot and taking a Tyger Campbell lob for a dunk as part of a personal six-point run.
A few minutes later, when Campbell was desperately searching for someone to take an inbounds pass, looking one way and then another, Bona burst through the lane to collect the ball and drive for a dunk.
Bona was everywhere the seventh-ranked Bruins needed him to be during a 68-49 victory over the Utes, continuing a recent emergence that has made his team far more formidable while stretching its winning streak to 12 games.
Having been selected the Pac-12’s freshman of the week in each of the last two weeks, Bona was building a strong candidacy for a three-peat. Contributing in every category, he posted 15 points on seven-for-nine shooting to go with eight rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal.
Rebounding was the area that Cronin had most heavily targeted for improvement given that Bona’s average of 4.9 before Thursday ranked only third on the team, trailing guard Jaylen Clark (6.8) and forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. (6.4). Bona snagged three offensive rebounds in the first half against the Utes, including one that he threw to Campbell for a three-pointer.
Showing the shooting accuracy that has abandoned him for much of the season, Campbell made seven of 14 shots and three of six three-pointers on the way to 17 points and seven assists for the Bruins (15-2 overall, 6-0 Pac-12).
It helped Bona’s cause that Utah was without leading scorer Branden Carlson because of a reported sickness, taking his averages of 15.7 points and 7.4 rebounds off the board, not to mention his imposing 7-foot presence in the post. Guard Rollie Worster led the Utes (12-6, 5-2) with 12 points as they struggled against a UCLA defense led by reserve forward Kenneth Nwuba’s career-high five blocks.
Meanwhile, UCLA freshman guard Amari Bailey continued his new tradition of waving to students while dressed in sweatpants during the pregame roll call. It was the fourth consecutive game Bailey has missed because of discomfort in his left foot, and he’s not expected to play against Colorado on Saturday.
The Bruins shook off a shaky start largely thanks to Bona, his six consecutive points sparking an 11-0 spurt that put UCLA ahead to stay in the battle of the teams atop the Pac-12 standings. Bona’s big early burst helped his team take a 31-22 halftime lead even with Jaquez going scoreless while missing his first four shots.
Jaquez finally broke through a couple of minutes into the second half when he rose for a three-pointer and followed shortly thereafter with a jumper. Jaquez scored all eight of his points in the second half and finished with a game-high 12 rebounds as UCLA pulled away, avoiding the sort of letdown the plagued it a week ago against USC.
Another ally bolstered the Bruins in their bid to solidify their hold on the top spot in the conference standings. Somewhat more quietly than it would have liked, UCLA has built one of the best homecourt advantages in college basketball under Cronin.
A dive into the fine print of recent seasons is required to find the last time the Bruins lost a game at Pauley Pavilion with a full allotment of fans allowed inside the building.
A defeat last January against Oregon came with only a few dozen immediate family members permitted because of COVID-19 restrictions. The last setback before that came with just cardboard cutouts looking on as USC’s Tahj Eaddy sank a late corner three-pointer off an inbounds pass in March 2021.
One must go all the way back to Jan. 15, 2020, to find the last time a large throng of UCLA fans left Pauley Pavilion unhappy. Stanford’s victory that night sparked a memorable postgame rant by Cronin and lineup changes that had their intended effect.
The Bruins won their final seven home games that season, went 11-1 at home with no fans permitted during the coronavirus season that followed and finished 14-1 on their home court last season, with the Oregon loss the only blemish.
UCLA is now 10-o this season at Pauley Pavilion, giving Cronin the kind of success that’s essential in his team’s bid for its first Pac-12 regular-season title in a decade.
“If you’re going to build a program that competes for your league title,” Cronin said earlier this week, “you must win at home.”