Amari Bailey could hear the insults coming from the opposing bench.
UCLA’s freshman guard was called a nonshooter. The defense he saw reflected those words, players sagging off to give him extra room to shoot while guarding against drives toward the basket.
Pepperdine’s game plan was not without some merit. Bailey had been relatively quiet for the first five games of his college career, including struggles in his first two matchups against nationally ranked teams.
This was different.
In case anyone needed any reminders as to why he was rated as one of the nation’s top high school prospects, Bailey provided one after another Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion.
Providing a huge lift on a night the Bruins’ defense returned to its usual stifling form, Bailey scored a career-high 19 points to power the No. 19 Bruins to a 100-53 victory that foiled Pepperdine’s grand defensive plans.
“If you watch the film, they went under the screen and I kind of felt like it was disrespectful, like they were giving me plenty of feet to shoot the ball,” Bailey said, “so I was just taking what the defense was giving me.”
That included showing the many ways he can contribute.
Bailey continually fed freshman center Adem Bona for dunks, once on a bounce pass, a second time on a wraparound pass underneath the basket and a third time on a lob. He hit all three three-pointers he took. And he did, in fact, beat the defense designed to stop his drives, accelerating past a helpless counterpart for a layup.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, that you’re not to get to the rim at this level, they’re going to force you to make shots, which he can do,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “You know, he’s just got to accept it and it’s an adjustment. But you saw he was looking to catch and shoot.
“Once he started getting it going, everybody — our whole team — started looking for him. We were starting to run plays for him.”
Bailey made seven of 12 shots to go with four assists and three rebounds against zero turnovers to lead six Bruins in double figures scoring.
UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. contributed 17 points and eight rebounds while guard David Singleton added 13 points off the bench.
For Bailey, it was a strong bounce-back effort after he had averaged three points and two turnovers while shooting 20% last weekend during back-to-back losses.
“For guys like Adem and Amari, you can’t even imagine the pressure those kids are under,” Cronin said. “I do because you can cut it with a knife. I just try to simplify life for guys like that, just keep playing hard, keep being coachable and it will all happen for you.”
UCLA’s lost weekend had left it with a clear mandate when it returned to its home court: fix the defense.
Sagging second-half efforts in which UCLA surrendered 51 points to Illinois and 43 to Baylor had prompted Cronin to voice his displeasure so loudly that he could be heard two rooms away after the second consecutive defeat.
Three days later, there was a much sweeter sound. It was the Bruins’ hands continually slapping balls for deflections and steals while forcing five turnovers during a decisive first-half stretch in which they turned a two-point deficit into a 15-point advantage.
As usual, Jaylen Clark, UCLA’s designated stopper, was in the middle of nearly everything his team did defensively.
A Clark steal led to a Jaquez spin move in the lane for a layup. Clark then got the ball back for his team by forcing Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis into a turnover along the baseline.
UCLA (4-2) sustained its strong defensive play by holding the Waves (4-2) to 35% shooting overall and just 24 points in the second half.
“Our effort to guard the ball starting at the point of attack, our ball pressure was better than it’s been all year,” Cronin said. “We understood if we let them get comfortable and in rhythm with the way they shoot the ball, we were going to be in trouble.”
Ultimately, it was the Waves who endangered themselves by underestimating a young Bruin, leading to a breakthrough.