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Thursday January 20th, 2022 2:12PM

After COVID-19, No. 5 UCLA waits to play 1st game in weeks

By The Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a nearly two-week shutdown because of COVID-19, UCLA is back. At least the fifth-ranked Bruins are trying to be.

And they finally have an opponent to play.

The team returned to practice a week ago, with everyone from coach Mick Cronin to several players having recovered after being laid low by the coronavirus. Just three scholarship players did not test positive.

UCLA will host Long Beach State on Thursday. Only family members will be allowed to attend because of rising COVID-19 cases. The Beach is making its second visit to Pauley Pavilion this season, having lost 100-79 on Nov. 15.

The Bruins (8-1) haven’t played since Dec. 11, when they won at Marquette. Four days later, Cronin woke up “feeling terrible,” tested positive and immediately went into quarantine. The Bruins’ game that night against Alabama State was canceled an hour before tipoff.

“It was a wild ride,” Cronin said. “I feel better now. Being in the bedroom for 10 days was no fun at all.”

Games against North Carolina in Las Vegas and Cal Poly at home were canceled. After winning their Pac-12 opener on Dec. 1 against Colorado, the Bruins had four other league games postponed.

UCLA thought it would be hosting Arizona State on Wednesday, but then the Sun Devils came down with COVID-19 issues. It’s up to the Pac-12 office to schedule league games; the Bruins can line up any nonconference games themselves.

Everyone on the staff is furiously working the phones to see who’s got game. Cronin said he would talk to the league office about allowing schools to play an opponent three times, something it did last season, just to fill in the pockmarked schedule.

Rival Southern California may get a phone call. After all, the seventh-ranked Trojans (12-0) are just 12 miles across town and they’ve been idle since beating Georgia Teach on Dec. 18.

“I don’t care if we flip a coin,” Cronin said, referring to deciding a game site.

The Trojans, who had COVID-19 issues of their own, are faring slightly better with their schedule. Road games this week at California and Stanford were still on as of Tuesday.

Next week isn't looking much better for either UCLA or USC. The Oregon schools are due in Los Angeles, but both the Ducks and the Beavers have COVID-19 issues.

USC said Tuesday night that its home games — and all other indoor athletic events — will be played without the general public through Jan. 14. Only families and guests of team members will be allowed.

“We all want to play, but we understand what it’s like for other teams that are going through it,” UCLA starting guard Jules Bernard said Tuesday via Zoom.

The Bruins’ COVID-19 woes coincided with the Christmas break, leaving Bernard alone in his off-campus apartment. With no classes and no access to a gym, he played video games in between doing push-ups and stretching.

“Nothing can prepare you for coming back to work out after 10, 12 days not touching a basketball,” he said.

The Bruins found that out when they finally reconvened.

“We tried to run one sprint and had guys throwing up in the garbage can,” Cronin said. “Working out and practicing is one thing. Game legs are totally different.”

The players stayed in touch via group text messages and met with the coaching staff over Zoom.

Like Bernard, Jaime Jaquez Jr. resumed his old habit of playing video games. He compared the days in quarantine to an extended respite similar to the NBA’s All-Star break.

“COVID caught up to us,” he said, referring to last season when the Bruins didn’t have a single case.

Cronin is cautious about easing eager players back into the regime of practicing and playing so they don’t get hurt.

“We’re always chomping at the bit," Bernard said, "and staying ready for any game.”

___

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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