It was like preparing to climb Mt. Everest and being told you can’t take your snowshoes … or your safety harness.
What was already a daunting challenge increased exponentially in degree of difficulty Saturday once UCLA learned it would have to play USC without forward Cody Riley … or forward Jalen Hill.
That left the Bruins with a frontcourt featuring one big man who had averaged 4.4 minutes per game in his five appearances this season and another who would be making his college debut after joining the team last month.
Hey everybody, meet Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne.
Nwuba got the start and had his teammates cheering early when he took a charge and swatted a shot. Etienne checked in for the first time in his career a few minutes later and calmly buried a jump hook.
The good vibes wouldn’t last despite a highly encouraging debut for Etienne, the No. 21 Bruins unraveling amid a flurry of clanked shots during a 66-48 loss to the Trojans at the Galen Center.
Etienne’s strong play in the first half earned him a start in the second half. He elevated his game even further, getting the best of USC counterpart Evan Mobley on one sequence in which he blocked Mobley’s shot before backing Mobley down on the other end of the court and drawing a foul.
Gaining confidence with every possession, Etienne threw down a vicious one-handed dunk and buried a jumper. He finished with eight points on four-for-five shooting to go with five rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes, his one blemish coming on his four turnovers.
“You can see that he has a tremendous amount of potential,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, noting that Etienne was going to play even if the team had been at full strength.
It was a winning performance on a night the rest of the Bruins (13-4 overall, 9-2 Pac-12 Conference) couldn’t make a shot while falling into a first-place tie with the Trojans (15-3, 9-2). UCLA shot 33.9% while making a dreadful three of 19 in three-point shooting (15.8%).
The absence of their top two big men left the Bruins in need of a new game plan going against Mobley, the USC freshman forward who might be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. UCLA unveiled the extensive use of a 2-3 zone for the first time this season and it flustered the Trojans early as the teams traded one bricked shot for another. Etienne’s jump hook pulled UCLA within 14-11, triggering a loud celebration on the Bruins’ bench.
But USC’s shots eventually started falling, the Trojans closing the first half on a 13-4 run to take a 30-20 halftime lead while the scrappy Bruins resembled a short-handed team.
Riley was out after spraining his right ankle in practice earlier in the week, watching warmups with his foot in a protective walking boot. Hill sat out because of what an athletic department spokesman described as personal reasons. The Bruins also continued to miss Chris Smith, the injured 6-foot-9 guard whose length could have helped disrupt Mobley.
Mobley hardly dominated, finishing with nine points on four-for-six shooting, but the Trojans didn’t need him to on a night teammate Ethan Anderson scored a career-high 19 points.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.