When UCLA’s Mick Cronin wants to pull out all the stops, he goes to Jaylen Clark


UCLA’s Jaylen Clark battles Villanova’s Justin Moore for a loose ball during the first half of the Bruins’ overtime win Friday at Pauley Pavilion. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

With 80 seconds left and his team needing two more defensive stands to complete its comeback against Villanova, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew where to turn.

His super stopper.

Jaylen Clark rose from the bench, the sophomore guard receiving instructions and a get-in-there pat on the back from his coach as he walked toward the scorer’s table to check into the game Friday night at Pauley Pavilion.

Clark sprinted along the baseline to defend the inbounds pass with the Bruins trailing by two points late in regulation, disrupting the Wildcats any way he could. After Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels missed a jumper with 58 seconds left, Clark tapped the rebound to teammate Tyger Campbell to start the possession that ended in Jules Bernard’s hanging floater in the lane that tied the score.

One stop down. One to go.

When Villanova’s Justin Moore drove toward the basket in the final seconds, Clark was there, his body staying in front of his man, his left arm extended into the air to contest the shot.

Moore’s attempt bounced harmlessly off the backboard and Clark grabbed the rebound to send the game into overtime, where the second-ranked Bruins prevailed for an 86-77 victory over the fourth-ranked Wildcats made possible by Clark’s largely unsung heroics.

He scored only two points to go with six rebounds and an assist, but another statistic was far more telling. Clark finished with a plus-minus of plus-15 in only 15 minutes, meaning the Bruins outscored the Wildcats by 15 points while he was on the court.

UCLA’s Jaylen Clark battles Villanova’s Justin Moore for a loose ball during the Bruins’ overtime win Friday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Cronin valued Clark’s presence so much that he inserted him late in regulation in place of Johnny Juzang, the team’s leading scorer with 25 points. Clark helped the Bruins rally from a 10-point deficit with a little more than nine minutes left.

“Defensively, to win championships, you have to be able to stop a really good team,” Cronin said after the game. “It comes down to who can get a stop.”

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Clark re-entered the game with 1:26 left in overtime and the Bruins holding a 74-70 advantage to provide more stops as Cronin alternated his best offensive and defensive lineups at the end of the game.

Cronin said Clark had been so impressive in preseason practices that he didn’t know how he was going to keep him off the court until he missed two weeks with concussion-like symptoms. Then Clark caught a horrible head cold, but it couldn’t keep him out of the team’s season-opening victory over Cal State Bakersfield or prevent him for making the stops his team needed in an early season showdown.

“That’s how Jaylen Clark goes after every ball,” Cronin said of his defense at the end of the game. “You got to have a guy like that.”

Clark’s scrappiness is reminiscent of the players Cronin stockpiled his Cincinnati teams with and intends to sprinkle onto the Bruins’ roster.

“I love L.A., my family’s happy, I couldn’t love it here anymore,” Cronin said. “But I had to have him [as a recruit]. When I saw Jaylen Clark, he’s got a little Bearcat written on him, so I had to have him. You’ve got to have at least one or two guys like him.”

TONIGHT

VS. LONG BEACH STATE

When: 8.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Network; Radio: 570.

Update: The Bruins and the Beach will presumably get to play after twice having to cancel a scheduled game last season because of COVID-19 issues involving Long Beach State. The Beach (1-0) defeated Idaho, 95-89, in overtime in its season opener after junior guard Joel Murray led the team with 28 points. UCLA (2-0) has shown elite balance in its first two games, ranking No. 6 nationally in offensive efficiency, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and No. 14 in defensive efficiency.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.