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After 'embarrassing' loss, UCLA's Mick Cronin takes solace in friend who doesn't bark back

Sometimes all he needs is Mick’s best friend.

His team having coughed up a hairball of a loss against rival USC, Mick Cronin returned to his Encino home Saturday night to find comfort in a furry companion.

“Having the Bookster helps me,” the UCLA coach said Tuesday of the Australian and German Shepherd mix that also has a touch of Chihuahua. “You know, he doesn’t care if you win or lose — he just wants a treat. He wants his scratchies and he wants a treat — and he would love a walk.”

Cronin had cracked that the Bookster was the only one he was going to talk to after a 62-56 loss to the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion that the coach labeled “embarrassing,” “terrible” and “awful.”

“We came dressed up for a dance party,” Cronin said Tuesday of his players’ mind-set, “and now we’re in a street fight and it’s hard to change.”

Read more: Beyond the screaming, there's a (winning) method to Mick Cronin's madness at UCLA

A sunny disposition was required Sunday given that the Bruins were hosting recruit Khaman Maluach, a 7-foot-2 center from the NBA Academy Africa.

“Probably healthy for me,” Cronin, who did not mention the recruit by name, said of having to pull himself together, “for the dark place I go to.”

Having lost back-to-back games for the first time since early January, the Bruins (14-13 overall, 9-7 Pac-12) are trying to regain their footing in the season’s dog days. Cronin said his players’ attitude in practice Monday was “a little bit better” than it had been last week, which he had called the worst of the season.

The inattention forced Cronin to make offending players run on a treadmill, a fitting metaphor for a season that often has felt as if it’s going nowhere.

“Just something so ridiculously egregious,” Cronin said when asked for an example of what would cause him to make a player run, “that it’s like, are you kidding me?”

Read more: Hernández: Mick Cronin makes his last-ditch effort to try to salvage UCLA's season

It wasn’t the first punishment the coach enforced. Cronin revealed he had stripped players of their UCLA gear during practice in late December as part of a motivational ploy similar to one he used midway through his first season in Westwood.

“The standard’s got to be the standard,” Cronin said, “and if you’re going to play here, you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to have a great attitude and great effort.”

The Bruins went on to beat Oregon State in their Pac-12 opener before backsliding again, but the message was delivered.

“It's just a mental thing,” guard Lazar Stefanovic said, “that you’ve got to deserve to play for UCLA and wear this shirt and the name on the shirt.”

Go four it

UCLA has gone from the First Four to the Final Four under Cronin.

Now the Bruins are in search of the top four.

Finishing in that chunk of the Pac-12 standings would give UCLA a bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament next month, requiring one fewer game to win the event and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Read more: Sloppy defense and poor shooting plague UCLA's starting guards in loss to rival USC

With almost as many losses as wins, that’s pretty much the only path to the postseason for the Bruins.

Cronin said it’s not how many games you play in the conference tournament but how you’re playing that matters.

“The team that plays the best will usually win,” Cronin said. “Ultimately, guys, you’re going to have to beat everybody whether you’ve got to beat three really good teams or four really good teams.”

UCLA enters this week tied with Colorado for fourth place in the Pac-12 standings, but the Bruins have one of the tougher remaining conference schedules starting with a game against Washington (15-13, 7-10) on Thursday night in Seattle. The Bruins will also play No. 19 Washington State, No. 6 Arizona and Arizona State before the conference tournament.

Big fella on the rise

UCLA center Aday Mara drives to the basket against California guard Gus Larson
UCLA center Aday Mara (15) drives to the basket against California guard Gus Larson on Feb. 10. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Stuck in one of their longest scoring lulls of the season Saturday, the Bruins got an unlikely lift from a player averaging 3.3 points.

Thank you, Aday Mara.

The 7-3 freshman center pretty much was UCLA’s offense through the first 14 minutes of the second half. Entering the game with 17:41 left after Adem Bona picked up his third foul, Mara scored the Bruins’ first point of the half on a free throw with 13:45 remaining and went on to make a couple of jump hooks, two more free throws and an old-fashioned three-point play to score 10 of his team’s first 14 points.

“His competitive toughness has gotten better and that’s why he’s played better,” Cronin said of Mara, who is averaging 3.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.6 minutes. “I think the other areas, with his strength, his agility, his mobility, his conditioning, those are all things that it’s going to take time and work with us and our staff and he’ll get better over time, but just his intestinal fortitude to compete, he’s adjusting.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.