UCLA Hangs on Late to Knock Off Utah, 72-70
It wasn't pretty, but the Bruins were able to end 2020 with a victory.
The UCLA Bruins last played a basketball game on December 19, and it showed today. The Bruins started slow, played brilliantly for 16 minutes in the first half, and then spent the second half holding on for dear life. Fortunately, that was enough to barely edge the Utah Utes on Thursday, but it’s the kind of game that leaves us with more questions than answers.
Let’s start with something good: Chris Smith looked much better in this game! He led the Bruins with 16 points and looked much more aggressive and in-control to start the game. His second half was a nightmare - he only had three points on 1-3 shooting - but it was unsurprising considering the knee injury he suffered near the end of the first half. He left the game in the final minutes and was seen being looked at by an athletic trainer, so his status for Saturday’s matchup is in doubt, which is a shame since he finally looked like the Chris Smith from last season prior to the injury.
I also want to give a shout-out to how the team responded to Utah’s opening flurry. Or, more specifically, Alfonso Plummer’s opening flurry, as the senior guard went nuclear to start this game, putting up 14 points on 5-5 shooting, including four makes from three-point range, and was doing it despite UCLA’s defense being fine. Sometimes a player just goes off no matter how well you defend them, and it’s hard to blame the Bruins considering Plummer was doing his best Steph Curry impression. Still, credit should go to this team for quickly mounting a rally of their own, turning a 16-4 deficit into an 18-16 lead in a matter of minutes, and extending their own lead out to 41-32 by halftime.
And then….the second half.
My best guess at the moment is that Mick Cronin is going to face a ton of questions for how the Bruins played in the second half, and most of it is warranted. UCLA looked lethargic to start the second half, and never really seemed to play with any sense of urgency even with the Utes breathing down their necks. Players like Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez looked gassed as the second half progressed - understandable since they hadn’t played in weeks - but it leads to questions of why solid backups like David Singleton and Jake Kyman did not see more minutes (or personally, how Jaylen Clark isn’t given more of an opportunity to showcase his defensive prowess when UCLA’s other guards were continuing to struggle on that end).
The biggest question will be how Jalen Hill, who in many respects has been UCLA’s best player this season, only saw 19 minutes while Cody Riley was allowed to be a huge drain on both ends of the court. The LA Times Ben Bolch noticed that Hill was getting some work done on his knee on the bench, which leads me to believe he’s on an unannounced minutes restriction of some sort. And then in crunch time, Hill found himself as UCLA’s free-throw shooter of choice despite only shooting 56.5% from the line on the year. The decision ultimately paid off - Hill went 6-8 from the line in the game - but he had two critical misses in those final minutes that opened the door for the Utes late.
And before we move on to the takeaways, a word on Tyger Campbell, who vacillated wildly between being great and awful in this game. He was one point short of a double-double, as he had nine points and 10 assists, but he went from a +9 in the first half to a -7 in the second, in part because he kept making poor decisions. Campbell appeared to be the only Bruin who was safe from Mick Cronin’s hook in this game, playing 37 minutes total including all of the second half, but the Bruins cannot afford for him to be as bad as he was to end this game.
Chris Smith led the Bruins with 16 points. Cody Riley, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Jalen Hill tied for the team lead with five rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led the team with 10 assists. Alfonso Plummer led the Utes with 22 points.
Player of the Game: Chris Smith - It says a lot that Smith could have such a forgettable second half and still be the best choice for PotG, but that’s just how good his first half was. Smith was 6-6 from the field in the first half, putting up his 13 points in a variety of ways, including some of those dirty points I said he should hunt for in the Buzzer Beater. The knee injury he suffered to end the half seemed to bother him the rest of the game, which is a shame because he looked well on his way to having a great rebound game.
Area of concern: Second Half Effort - Maybe the long layoff between games had something to do with it. Maybe the availability of their two best players was a factor. Maybe Utah is a well-coached team. All of that is a factor, but it must be said that UCLA survived this game rather than won it, which is concerning since they had a nine-point lead at the half. UCLA looked lethargic and uninterested for most of the second half, and they need to figure things out in a hurry.
A defensive effort to forget - Yes, the Utes hit some increasingly-difficult shots at times, but too often UCLA seemed to roll out the red carpet for Utah’s offense. The Bruins were steps too slow on their rotations throughout the game and allowed too many easy looks inside, as the Utes outscored the Bruins 28-24 in the paint. Once more, the Bruins were reminded that they cannot afford for Jalen Hill to miss time.
The Bruins next play on Saturday, when they host Colorado.