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UCLA Guts Out an Impressive Win Over Colorado, 65-62
The Bruins won their first game without All Pac-12 Player Chris Smith, who is out for the season with an ACL tear.
The trajectory of the 2020-2021 UCLA Bruins basketball season has changed wildly in the past few hours. The Bruins went into their game against a good Colorado team having just learned that Chris Smith, their do-everything forward and a potential NBA Draft selection, would miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury. The loss was clearly affecting UCLA early and often in this game, but one thing we’ve learned about this UCLA squad under Mick Cronin is that they are gritty and refuse to give up. Multiple Bruins stepped up in a major way, and UCLA was able to end Saturday with a 65-62 victory over the Buffaloes at Pauley Pavilion.
With Chris Smith now out for the season, Mick Cronin again turned to Jules Bernard to take a starting spot, and Bernard responded with a solid game, scoring 12 points on an efficient 4-7 shooting night. More importantly, Bernard did a good job of approximating Smith’s rebounding ability, tying his season-high with seven rebounds. Cody Riley also stepped up in a major way, having his best game of the season and taking over the game late, scoring six of his 10 points in the final 5 minutes to help the Bruins take a seven-point lead with 2:16 to play. Colorado was able to make one last push, but Johnny Juzang (still streaky but similar to Riley came on strong late) was able to calmly hit two free throws to ice the game in the final seconds.
UCLA’s offense, which has been the secret strength of the team this season, had some major struggles in this game. The Bruins shot 47.2% from the field, which is good, but their 53 attempts were their lowest total since the UC Berkeley game. The big reason for that? 14 turnovers, a mark they’ve only touched twice prior including their opening loss to San Diego State. To be fair, not all of this is due to the offense struggling - Colorado has an excellent defense that excels at forcing turnovers - but too often UCLA seemed lost without their go-to offensive option in Smith. The short turn-around time between losing Smith and playing this game was obviously a factor, so I’ll be curious to see how the team looks after a week of practice and adjustments.
One thing that did return in this game was the defense. This was the first game of the season where it really felt like last year’s defense was being played, as the Bruins held the Buffaloes to 43.4% shooting, including a fantastic 26.1% from distance. More importantly, UCLA did a great job of focusing on Colorado’s skilled duo of McKinley Wright and Evan Battey, limiting them to 12 and 7 points respectively. Multiple players stepped up their defensive intensity in this game, and hopefully, the Bruins can build off that success going forward.
All of that said, this was a victory that should reset expectations for UCLA the rest of the season. The loss of Chris Smith cannot be overstated - without him, the floor and ceiling for this team have dropped, to the point where it is much harder to see them winning the conference. But it doesn’t mean UCLA won’t fight. If anything, getting this victory over a solid Colorado squad should be a sign that the Bruins will continue to fight through the end of the season, and have the talent and ability to stay in any game. Time will tell if that can be enough to win the conference.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with 14 points. Jules Bernard led the team with seven rebounds, and Tyger Campbell led the team with seven assists. McKinley Wright and Maddox Daniels led the Buffaloes with 12 points apiece.
Player of the Game: Jules Bernard - Bernard was once-again called upon to step up, and he again rose to the occasion. He was efficient on offense and excellent on defense, and while he isn’t a perfect replacement for everything Chris Smith does, he showed he can provide enough to allow other players to raise their game as well. If Bernard can play this well the rest of the season, UCLA has a chance.
Special shout out: Cody Riley - Two days after being a major negative against Utah, Riley had perhaps his best game of the season. He stepped up late to provide the Bruins an offensive spark, but more importantly he was excellent on defense. His 109.5 defensive rating was the second-best on the team among players with 10+ minutes and backed up what I was seeing, which was a player who was putting out maximum effort on that end of the court. With Smith out, UCLA needs Riley to be this level of player all the time.
The Highs and Lows of Tyger Campbell - On average, Campbell was good in this game, posting the highest game score and EFF stat on the team. But Campbell seemed to be pressing too much on the offensive end at times in trying to fill the Smith-shaped voice. He had an effective field goal percentage of 50%, which is fine, but when four of his 11 shots come from three-point range, a spot that he is notably not-great at, you’re going to run into some problems. Late in the game, Campbell also seemed to be trying to take Smith’s spot as the go-to option late, when other players (Riley, Jaquez) are better suited for that role. Campbell is at his best when he is facilitating the offense, and he’s at this worst when he is forcing his own offense.
UCLA travels to the state of Arizona next week, beginning the road trip Thursday against Arizona State.