Eleven minutes remained in the first half. Every UCLA starter was on the bench.
It looked as if they might not need to come back.
Pulverizing undersized Chaminade with their size, the Bruins had rolled to a quick 24-point lead in the teams’ second game of the Maui Invitational. The Silverswords, a tiny college basketball outfit known for the occasional supersized upset, had missed 16 of their first 17 shots, including their first 11 three-point attempts.
Then, in a change as swift as an island breeze, everything shifted.
Chaminade made one three-pointer. Then another. And another.
The Bruins committed one turnover. Then another. And another.
It never got truly scary for the Bruins, whose lead never fell into single digits Tuesday, but their 76-48 victory was not quite the easy afternoon they envisioned after building that big lead.
UCLA’s starters were forced to play more minutes than coach Mick Cronin would have liked ahead of another big-time matchup. After nearly upsetting Marquette on Monday night, the Bruins (4-1) will play No. 11 Gonzaga on Wednesday night in the fifth-place game, the teams’ fourth meeting in as many years, the Bulldogs having won the last three.
“It would shock me if it wasn’t the same [type of] competitive game,” Cronin said. “I’d be disappointed if we didn’t compete; I’d be shocked if they didn’t compete.”
UCLA must recapture the locked-in form it showed in a two-point loss to No. 4 Marquette, not the sloppiness that led to 14 first-half turnovers against Chaminade, to have any chance against the Bulldogs.
“We’re so young,” Cronin said, alluding to a roster featuring seven freshmen, “I don’t know what I’m going to get from anybody at any given time.”
It also would help if freshman guard Sebastian Mack repeated his strong showings of the first two games. Roughly 15 hours after he scored a career-high 25 points against Marquette, Mack went for 16 points, six rebounds and five steals against Chaminade, including seven points in a hurry after the Silverswords (1-4) cut their deficit to 10.
“It starts out with the defensive end,” Mack said. “Without those steals, we don’t get those buckets, so I feel like once I turned it up on the defensive end is when we were able to get that run.”
Lazar Stefanovic added 13 points and Aday Mara had 10 rebounds to go with six points and two blocks for UCLA, which prevailed despite committing 18 turnovers, not far off the high (22) of Cronin’s five seasons.
Cronin said he was concerned about how his young team would respond after the emotionally charged defeat against Marquette in which UCLA lost a 12-point lead in the second half. For the first nine minutes Tuesday, the Bruins were practically flawless.
“We came out with the right approach and we looked literally unbeatable,” Cronin said. “Then, our approach changed, and we started playing for ourselves instead of our teammates and our opponent stepped up their intensity and their help in the paint and we were very soft with the ball.
“Our post guys got stripped seven or eight times in the first half. Excuses are for losers. … At some point, you’ve got to have some pride.”
Inserting Mara, its 7-foot-3 freshman, into the starting lineup alongside 6-9 Adem Bona, UCLA was unstoppable early. It probably helped that some of the Bruins' undersized counterparts stared squarely into their necks.
Mara made an easy layup for the first points and Bona (12 points, six rebounds) soon added a layup off an inbounds pass, a spin move for a layup and a dunk in which he was fouled. The Bruins were on their way to the big lead that put their starters on the bench.
The reserves couldn’t hold things down, failing to close out on three-point shooters and repeatedly turning the ball over. The carelessness continued when UCLA’s starters returned, Chaminade eventually pulling to within 30-18.
The rest of the story belonged to the Bruins, even if they didn’t get the rest they wanted.
Stefanovic played 32 minutes, starting point guard Dylan Andrews played 30 and Mack 29. Bona played 23 minutes before absorbing a hit to the head and departing, though he appeared fine while laughing on the bench in the final minute.
The notion that UCLA was exceeding expectations early in the season with strong defense while almost beating one of the nation’s top teams clearly irritated Cronin.
“I’m going to be really honest with you, I take it as an insult that other people are surprised that my team is going to play hard and play defense,” Cronin said. “That, like, people thought we shouldn’t be ranked with the recruiting class we had. To me, it’s insulting that people were surprised with the way we played [Monday] night.”
If the Bruins can beat Gonzaga, reframing the possibilities once again, there may be no surprises left.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.