Though the Bruins welcomed the new year with a win, it hardly came with a bang.
After clinching the victory against the visiting Utes in the closing minutes of regulation Thursday, UCLA men’s basketball (7-2, 3-0 Pac-12) went 2-0 over the New Year’s weekend, defeating Colorado (7-3, 1-2) 65-62 for its third conference win of the season. Yet the victory came with the Bruins’ 14 turnovers, one below their season high, in an effort that saw them put up just 65 points – their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
The Bruins were unable to shake off the Buffaloes for the majority of the game, but scores by redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley in crunch time pushed the lead to seven down the stretch – the Bruins’ largest lead for the entire night.
Saturday’s game came just an hour after UCLA announced that guard Chris Smith would not be returning for the remainder of the season after the senior sustained a torn ACL in the game against Utah days earlier.
“He’s probably played his last game as a Bruin,” coach Mick Cronin said. “I was with him and the medical staff, we broke the news to him before shootaround today. You know, he’s mature, I’m probably more upset about it than him, but it’s tough for me, guys. It’s tough for me to even coach today.”
Smith’s season-ending injury comes after he announced in August that he would return to UCLA for his senior season, after initially declaring himself eligible for the 2020 NBA Draft.
“As a team, we’re all heartbroken that it’s his senior year,” said sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. “He was our only senior so this season, we’re going to try to play this one for him.”
Last year’s Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year, Smith led the team in points in 2019, and his 12.6 points per game in 2020 were good for second on the team. This season, Smith contributed an average of 28 minutes per game, behind only Campbell and Jaquez.
Like his minutes, Smith’s scoring was distributed relatively evenly around the remainder of the team, with five Bruins reaching double digits by the end of regulation.
However, Cronin said the Bruins will still have to find ways to incorporate more players off the bench into their offense for the remainder of the season.
“You know, I think we’ve got to get (junior guard) David Singleton and (sophomore guard/forward Jake Kyman) going,” Cronin said. “I’ve got to find ways to get those guys going with more minutes and offensively. (Freshman guard) Jaylen Clark’s going to be big for us in the future because I think we’re going to have to play him and (Jaquez) together because sometimes we’re just too small out there.”
Without Smith, UCLA started the first half sluggish on offense as both teams began their night a combined 2-of-9 from the floor in the opening five minutes. The first half was marked by turnovers on both ends of the floor, with the Bruins and Buffaloes coughing up the ball 19 times in the first half.
Both teams shot sub-50% from the floor, and the Bruins – who had shot .370 on the season from 3-point range – were just 3-of-15 from deep.
Neither team was able to capitalize on its opponents’ poor shooting, and though Colorado hit consecutive 3-pointers in the closing minutes of the first half, the score was deadlocked at 29 as both teams headed into the locker rooms.
Despite the game’s slow start, both offenses began to heat up in the second half. At the 17-minute mark, Jaquez – who notched 14 points on the night – slammed home a two-handed dunk off a feed from Campbell, pushing the Bruins’ lead to three.
“I just think we didn’t turn the ball over (in the second half),” Jaquez said. “(In the first half,) we just kept getting stops, and then we’d give it right back. So our emphasis was not turning the ball over, but keep playing really good defense.”
The Bruin lead didn’t grow much throughout the half, as both teams traded mini-runs and scoring droughts as the clock ticked down. They also matched each other in turnovers down the stretch, tallying a combined 27 turnovers compared to 22 assists between the two squads.
Despite the low ratio, Campbell tallied seven assists on the game, and the vision from the conference’s assist leader helped his team hold the lead for the remainder of the game. Five of Campbell’s assists came in the second half, one of them being a pass down low to Riley who – with layups at 4:46 and 3:56 – pushed the Bruins ahead by four.
“We’ve got all the confidence in the world in (Riley) and (redshirt junior forward/center) Jalen Hill down there,” Campbell said. “Towards the end of the game, (Riley) got some big-time buckets, and we just played through him towards the end of the game.”
Though the game had been tied with five minutes to go in regulation, the Buffaloes were unable to take the lead, and free throws from sophomore guard Johnny Juzang sealed the win.
The Bruins will begin a two-game road trip to face Arizona State and Arizona on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.