Amari Bailey heard insults coming from the opponents’ bench.
A UCLA freshman security guard was called a non-shooter. The defense he saw reflected those words, with players sagging to give him extra shooting space, defending from shots to the rim.
Pepperdine’s game plan has some merit. Bailey was relatively quiet during the first five games of his college career, including wrestling in the first two against national ranked teams.
It was different.
In case anyone needed a reminder as to why he was voted one of the most promising students in the country, Bailey dropped in one by one on Wednesday nights at the Paulie Pavilion.
Providing a huge lift that evening as the Bruins defense returned to its usual choke form, Bailey scored a career-high 19 points to bolster no 19 Bruins to a 100–53 victory that derailed Pepperdine’s grandiose defensive plans.
“If you watch the movie, they went under the screen and I felt like it was disrespectful, like they gave me enough room to hit the ball,” Bailey said, “so I just took what the defense gave. to me.”
This included demonstrating the many ways he can contribute.
Bailey constantly fed rookie center Adem Bohn for dunks: once on the rebound, once on the under basket, and a third time on the serve. He hit all three 3-pointers he took. And he really overcame the defenses meant to stop his attacks, speeding up to a helpless opponent for a layup.
“We have been talking about this for a long time, that you will not get to the ring at this level, you will be forced to make throws, which he can do,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “You know, he just has to accept it, and it’s a fixture. But you saw that he wanted to catch and shoot.
“As soon as he started to act, everyone – our whole team – started looking for him. We started doing plays for him.”
Bailey made seven of 12 shots to go, had four assists and three rebounds on zero turnovers, leading six Bruins to a double-digit scoring lead.
It was a strong attempt for Bailey to recover after averaging three points and two assists and hitting 20% during consecutive losses last weekend.
“For guys like Adem and Amari, you can’t even imagine the pressure these kids are under,” Cronin said. “Yes, because it can be cut with a knife. I’m just trying to make life easier for these guys, just keep playing hard, keep being a coach and it will all happen for you.”
A lost UCLA weekend left him with a clear mandate when he returned to his home court: fix the defense.
A second-half flopping, in which UCLA lost 51 points to Illinois and 43 to Baylor, prompted Cronin to express his displeasure so loudly that he could be heard two rooms after his second loss in a row.
After three days, the sound became much more pleasant. It was the Bruins’ hands that constantly slapped the ball for deflections and interceptions while forcing five passes during the crucial first-half stretch in which they turned a two-point deficit into a 15-point lead.
As usual, UCLA’s designated quarterback Jaylen Clark has been at the center of just about everything his team has done defensively.
Clark’s theft resulted in Jaques’ rotation on the layup track. Clarke then returned the ball to his team, forcing Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis to make a backline pass.
UCLA (4-2) maintained a strong defensive game, keeping the Waves (4-2) at 35% shooting overall and just 24 points in the second half.
“Our efforts to protect the ball, starting from the point of attack, our pressure on the ball was better than in the whole year,” Cronin said. “We knew that if we let them get comfortable and in rhythm with the way they throw the ball, we would be in trouble.”
Ultimately, it was the Waves who put themselves in danger by underestimating the young Bruin, resulting in a breakthrough.