We’ve always talked about the Mountain road trip being the toughest in the conference, with two games at high altitude against some well-coached teams. Steve Alford only managed to get the Mountain road sweep once in his time in Westwood, and he needed the brilliance of Lonzo Ball to get it done.
Turns out, Mick Cronin only needed one try to pull it off, as the UCLA Bruins rolled into Boulder and used an impressive second-half surge to put away the conference-leading Colorado Buffaloes by the score of 70-63, and in the process made a statement that they could be the best team in the conference.
This was as impressive a victory as it comes for the Bruins. The team trailed by as many as nine with 12 minutes left in the game, but the Bruins turned things around quickly. Jake Kyman, Jalen Hill, and Tyger Campbell all made layups to cut the lead to three, Chris Smith hit an in-rhythm three-pointer to tie the game, and Campbell followed up with a three of his own after a timeout to put the Bruins in front for good. At the heart of the run was a combination of the suffocating defense that has become UCLA’s calling card in recent weeks, and a burst of hustle that was both surprising and amazing, especially late in the second-half of the second leg of the mountain trip. If you wanted a quick log-line for why UCLA won this game, then it would be easy enough to say the Bruins just outworked the Buffaloes.
There were heroes all around. Tyger Campbell continued his string of excellent play, including critical play down the stretch despite being hampered by what looked to be a sore hip. Jake Kyman, who had not seen much run in recent contests, came in and provided a huge offensive spark off the bench, going off for 12 points on 5-7 shooting and some solid defense. Cody Riley had another of his excellent games, putting up a team-high 16 points on 8-12 shooting, and coming alive when UCLA needed him most — 14 of his points came in the second half.
The Bruins benefited from a late switch in strategy that Colorado seemingly had no answer for. In the middle of the second half, the Buffaloes held a staggering 26-10 lead in points in the paint. By the end, the Bruins had tied that at 36, a truly-staggering turn-around in such a short amount of time. The Bruins also cleaned up the boards down the stretch, which was a problem while Colorado was stretching their lead.
And again, that defense. UCLA’s defense was fine in the first half, but Colorado really did a good job of making their open looks, converting 50% of their shots from the field. But in the second half, UCLA limited the Buffaloes to just 40% from the field, which combined with the Bruins’ own offensive explosion to bury their opponents.
And now, somehow, we have to start thinking about how this team matches up with the rest of the conference. I don’t think it is out of the question to say UCLA is currently playing the best basketball in the Pac-12, and the victory gives UCLA another huge Quadrant 1 victory. The Bruins sat at 90 in the NET rankings heading into this game; I’d expect that number to jump drastically heading into next week’s crucial clashes with the Arizona schools. More importantly, UCLA is completely back in the Pac-12 title race, and looks like they could clinch a bye in the Pac-12 tournament, which is always a crucial step to winning the entire tournament. Despite their non-conference woes, the Bruins could be making enough noise down the stretch here to make it difficult on the Selection Committee.
Cody Riley led the Bruins with 16 points. Jaime Jaquez let the Bruins with 10 rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led the team with 11 assists. McKinley Wright led Colorado with 20 points.
- Player(s) of the Game: Everyone - When you complete the mountain road sweep in the manner UCLA just did, everyone gets a shout-out. This was a complete team effort; four Bruins were in double figures, including Riley and Kyman who added 16 and 12 respectively off the bench. Guys who weren’t shooting well, like Jaquez or Hill, did the other things extremely well. The turnaround of this team is nothing short of astounding.
- Area of Improvement: Uhhhhhhh - Ok, I can nitpick and point to the scoring droughts that UCLA again had in this game, or what was some sloppy defense for large stretches of the game (in fact, Colorado was just picking apart UCLA with dribble-drives and off-ball motion at one point). But I can’t in good conscious do that right now. Ask me again in a few days.
- Next Man Up - On Thursday, Jules Bernard stole the show for the Bruins, leading the team in points while also playing stifling defense. Bernard was not nearly the same player today, but that’s understandable from a bench rotation player. So it speaks to the culture that Mick Cronin has created that other players were able to step up and help carry the load in a game where team leader Chris Smith was targeted defensively. It makes the Bruins that much harder to beat, as every rotation piece is capable of making big contributions when necessary.
The Bruins return home to take on Arizona State on Thursday. Tip-off is schedule for 8 PM PT.