Huh. That happened.
Let’s start with a statement, I guess. The UCLA Bruins came out and had one of their best halves of basketball all season and, then, did just enough down the stretch to secure a 72-68 victory over the #20 Colorado Buffaloes. While every UCLA player, in general, should get credit for this victory, especially on the defensive end, Chris Smith really won this game with some all-around excellent play.
Smith was truly electric in this game. He started the game with a fast-break layup followed by a three-pointer and, from there, it was hard to stop him, as he went off for a career-high 30 points on 8 of 16 shooting, including 13 of 15 from the free throw line. It was really that kind of night for Smith, as he was throwing up some absolutely ridiculous shots that got a few great bounces to go in or he was driving against outmatched Colorado defenders and, more often than not, drawing fouls. The Buffaloes truly had no answer for Smith and it is performances like this one that makes you understand why some scouts see first round potential for the junior.
Let’s move to that defense, because, in the first half, it was truly fantastic. Colorado was held to just 38.1% from the field. But it gets even deeper. The Bruins doubled up the Buffaloes on rebounds in the half with a 20-10 advantage, including a 7-1 offensive rebound advantage; if Colorado missed a shot, UCLA was not giving them an opportunity to shoot again. The Bruins also forced seven turnovers in the half and went on to score 15 fast break points. I’ve gone on record as saying UCLA’s offense is, well, not good (and more on that in a bit), but one way to alleviate that issue is to force turnovers and score in transition before your opponent can get the defense set. Colorado went on separate scoring droughts of 5:19 and 5:47 in the half, which also helped the Bruins build a 12-point halftime lead. A UCLA team that has the kind of defensive performance consistently could make some noise as the season progresses.
I qualify it that way because, boy howdy, was the second half more of a rough watch. Colorado really started to figure things out offensively, shooting 45.8% in the half and UCLA started to show their warts on offense. As I said, Smith had himself a great game, but outside of him the offense was almost non-existent. In fact, outside of Smith only Jaime Jaquez (2-3), David Singleton (1-5), and Cody Riley (1-2) even made a shot in the second half. Part of that problem was due to, again, poor construction of the UCLA offense. Too often, offensive sets simply devolved into hoping someone would make a play. If Smith had the ball, there was a decent shot of that occurring; if it was anyone else with the ball, maybe not. The Bruins only had two assists in the half, again a sign of some bad offense.
And maybe I’d feel a bit better writing this postgame if I didn’t have to watch Prince Ali continue his fascinating devolution. Ali had some all-timers at the end of this game, including inbounding the ball into the corner against the press, committing a foul on a three-point attempt, and getting away with a travel on another inbound. I don’t know how Ali continues to see the court in crunch time, or what it says about the rest of the team, but I, for one, will remain dumbfounded by the results.
Maybe I should be nicer about it, considering the Bruins just got their first victory over a ranked opponent since February 8, 2018, when the Bruins beat Arizona. Since then, the Bruins had lost six straight against ranked opponents. As I said, this is a great sign of growth in Mick Cronin’s first year. But this is UCLA and we should still have some standards.
Smith led the Bruins with 30 points and 9 rebounds. Tyger Campbell and David Singleton tied for the team lead with two assists each. Evan Battey and McKinley Wright both had 14 points for the Buffaloes.
- Player of the Game: Chris Smith - I mean, duh. Dude was the entire offense for most of the game. I’m not even going to pretend there were other options here.
- Area of concern: interior depth - I didn’t want to continue harping on the offense or Prince Ali here. So. I’m going to point out another factor in the final two minutes. Jalen Hill and Cody Riley both fouled out within 30 seconds of each other, leaving UCLA to originally try to play out the end of the game with Alex Olesinski at the 5 before Cronin decided better of it and went to a smaller lineup. The Bruins really don’t have a ton of playable options down low and had this happened earlier in the half, Colorado really seemed poised to abuse UCLA down low. It’s something to watch for the rest of the year.
- Oh, one more area of concern: press break - Late in the game, Colorado turned to its press in an attempt to cut into the lead and UCLA really began to struggle breaking a press they had seen in fits throughout the game. There were plenty of mental errors, especially from one Prince Ali, but the biggest issue seemed to be that Colorado succeeded in getting UCLA to play quicker and make those mistakes. Now, I guess the positive is that UCLA was in a position that an opponent needed to press to make things close, but it’d be something to perhaps watch for improvement going forward.
UCLA next plays on Super Bowl Sunday with a 12:00 pm PT tip-off against the Utah Utes.