It wasn’t an ideal start for UCLA on New Year’s Eve.
Utah’s Alfonso Plummer was so confident, he turned and jogged back on defense as his third 30-foot heave was still airborne in the opening minutes.
Splash. Plummer had 14 of the Utes’ first 16 points.
UCLA players looked up at the scoreboard and found themselves trailing by 12 points before five minutes had run off the clock and Coach Mick Cronin thundered for a timeout.
“I give Plummer a lot of credit for Utah’s start tonight,” Cronin said. “He was like World B. Free out there.”
The Bruins shook off some coronavirus-induced rust, responded, then survived a wild finish to hold on for a 72-70 Pac-12 victory on Thursday evening at Pauley Pavilion. But it wasn’t a win Cronin was happy about.
“This group of guys (UCLA) is trying to outscore their opponent because we shoot the ball better,” Cronin said. “To me, that’s the mindset of our players and that’s why we’re not where we need to be defensively. Our toughness level is nowhere near where it needs to be for us to reach our potential as a team.”
The closing seconds were wild, with UCLA clinging to a 68-66 lead. Tyger Campbell’s bad pass landed in Timmy Allen’s hands, but Allen lost the ball at the other end and Campbell stole it. Jalen Hill got fouled and made both free throws to keep the Bruins (6-2, 2-0 Pac-12) ahead, 70-66.
Allen scored inside to get Utah within 70-68 and the Utes (4-2, 1-1) were forced to foul Hill, who made one of two.
Jules Bernard fouled Plummer on a 3-point attempt with five seconds left that gave Plummer an opportunity to tie the score, but he missed one of his three free throws. That left the Utes behind 71-70, and Hill made one of two free throws with three seconds left.
“I was mad at myself,” Bernard said of fouling Plummer. “I have to be more disciplined than that.”
Utah’s final attempt to tie or win the game with three seconds left was thwarted by Bernard, who intercepted a Pelle Larsson pass to seal the victory.
“I was able to move on from a bad play to make a good play,” Bernard said.
UCLA’s comeback started with a 10-0 run out of a timeout, highlighted by a drive and dunk by Chris Smith, who was coming off two poor shooting games (a combined 2 for 16 from the field). Smith scored 13 of his team-high 16 points in the first half, when he was 6 for 6 from the field, including a 3-pointer that never touched the rim.
Smith’s only basket of the second half came by way of a corner 3-pointer with just 2:10 left to create a much-needed 68-64 cushion before the frantic finish.
Smith, the Bruins’ lone senior, tweaked his left knee colliding with a Utes player late in the first half. He limped to the locker room but returned to start the second half, though he limped throughout and the UCLA medical staff listed him with a knee bruise after the game.
The Bruins responded to Cronin’s fiery timeout with a 14-0 run to take an 18-16 lead, then extended the lead with a barrage of 3-pointers from Tyger Campbell and Johnny Juzang. A 3-pointer by Rylan Jones tied the score at 32-all before UCLA scored the final nine points for a 41-32 lead at the break. UCLA made six 3-pointers during what amounted to a 37-16 stretch to close the half.
Campbell finished with nine points and 10 assists and Juzang had 13, including two 3-pointers. Bernard finished the game with 13 points, too.
UCLA hadn’t played since losing to Ohio State on Dec. 19 in Cleveland. The Utes had been idle since beating Idaho on Dec. 18. Both teams had games postponed due to COVID-19.
The Bruins made 10 3-pointers (on 20 shots), an impressive number despite a 12-day layoff between games.
“It’s weird not playing for so long,” Juzang said. “But that can’t be an excuse for anything.”
A small feather in the cap of UCLA’s defense was Plummer’s scoreline, which was never added to for the rest of the half. He finished with 22. Allen added 18.
Smith picked up a third foul in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Bruins were able to pick up the slack in his absence. Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Bernard each hit 3-pointers to create a 47-37 lead.
Utah used a 10-2 run to regain the lead 58-57 midway through the second half after a pair of free throws from Riley Battin – a former Oak Park High standout. The Bruins were scoreless for nearly three minutes during the run before Bernard converted on a three-point play stop the drought. Juzang then had a three-point play of his own to give UCLA a 63-60 lead with 5:12 left.
Minutes later, Smith converted on the pivotal corner 3-pointer.
Cronin pointed out that 11 of Utah’s 14 field goals in the second half were layups. Asked what the team needs to improve on defensively ahead of Saturday’s game against Colorado (5 p.m., Pac-12 Network), he was blunt: “Everything.”
Did the Bruins understand Cronin’s message?
“We’re happy we got the win, but there are definitely things we got to take away from this game,” Bernard said. “We didn’t play our best.”
Campbell committed three turnovers late, which is uncharacteristic for him – the redshirt sophomore came into the game averaging 1.7 turnovers in 38 career games and just 1.3 per game this season. “A couple turnovers I had I probably should have shot those,” Campbell said. “Their defense was really good down the stretch.” … The Bruins extended their home winning streak to 11 games overall. They haven’t lost at Pauley Pavilion since Stanford won on Jan. 15, 2020. They’ve won nine consecutive conference games at home, their best home streak since winning 12 in a row from March 2014-January 2016. The Bruins face an always tough trip to the Arizona schools next week.
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