SALT LAKE CITY —
Mick Cronin brought out an old boxing reference when asked about the challenge facing his ninth-ranked team against a massive underdog, mentioning Buster Douglas’ epic upset of Mike Tyson as evidence of what can happen without inflicting enough early damage.
It was the Bruins who absorbed most of the body blows in the first half Thursday night at the Huntsman Center against a team that had not won in almost a month.
Utah battered UCLA with one three-pointer after another while holding every Bruin not named Johnny Juzang in check defensively. Seeking their first victory since beating Fresno State on Dec. 21, the Utes held a three-point lead midway through the second half, invigorating a small but spirited crowd.
The Bruins were already shorthanded on the wing, missing their top two reserves, when Jules Bernard limped off the court. Fans unleashed an “Overrated!” chant that seemed appropriate given the sequence that followed. UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell missed a layup and forward Cody Riley threw a cross-court pass that was intercepted before Jaime Jaquez Jr. compounded the mess by committing a foul.
It was only in the final minutes that a game that had been tilting heavily the other way finally went in the Bruins’ favor.
Bernard sparked a late run with a three-pointer that wiped out his team’s final deficit, the Bruins finally on the way to a 63-58 victory that allowed them to exhale.
“When you win on the road in conference play,” Cronin said, “you get a shower, something to eat and that’s it. It’s not supposed to be pretty.”
The Bruins could enjoy their postgame meal only after Utah missed two three-pointers in the final 20 seconds and Bernard made two free throws after grabbing a rebound and getting fouled. Bernard was just one of many Bruins protagonists.
Jaquez took a charge on Both Gach with 30 seconds left and the Bruins (12-2, 4-1 Pac-12) holding a two-point lead, his teammates mobbing him in celebration while he sat on the court. Utah fouled Campbell, who made one of two free throws with 25 seconds left to push UCLA’s lead to 61-58 before Utah’s final misses.
“I know [Gach] likes to go hard in transition, that’s kind of his thing to do, so when I saw him put his head down, he didn’t really see me there, I just slid over and just took it,” Jaquez said. “I was kind of scared because the ref kind of took a while to call it and I was like, ‘Dude, come on, please call the charge.’”
Utah fouled Campbell, who made one of two free throws with 25 seconds left to push UCLA’s lead to 61-58 before Utah’s final misses.
Juzang finished with a game-high 28 points on nine-for-13 shooting, including three of five three-pointers.
With the score tied at 54-54, Campbell shook off his second-half shooting struggles to make a jumper that gave UCLA the lead and Juzang followed with a floater to extend the advantage to four points. Utah’s Lazar Stefanovic followed with a three-pointer that Juzang partially offset with two free throws, extending the Bruins’ advantage to 60-57.
The Bruins had rolled off an 8-0 surge to go ahead 50-46 with seven minutes left thanks to scoring and toughness from Juzang, who buried a fadeaway jumper, fought for a jump ball that gave possession back to the Bruins and started a fast break by grabbing a loose ball.
“It’s just all about winning, so whatever it takes, that’s what I’m trying to do,” Juzang said. “Plays like that, that’s how you win games, especially when it’s close. You need every possession you can get, every stop you can get, so everybody made those little plays down the stretch and that’s why I love playing with these guys.”
Utah (8-11, 1-8) responded with five quick points to take a 51-50 lead and force Cronin to call timeout with 5:50 left and the Utes on what seemed like the verge of a post-Christmas miracle with heavy snow falling outside the arena.
As UCLA continued to search for a rhythm after a nearly monthlong layoff, its lineup in flux because of injuries and illnesses, the Bruins’ hunt for reliable production centered on its big men.
Riley has not grabbed many rebounds or been his usual low-post self since returning from a knee injury. Myles Johnson has repeatedly shrunk from the moment rather than rise to it, particularly on offense, failing to live up to his nickname of “Myles the Monster.”
Riley was back to making winning plays late in the game. He took a charge, buried a baseline jumper and sank one of two free throws to help UCLA complete its comeback. The redshirt senior forward finished with five points and five rebounds in 22 foul-plagued minutes.
Even as Jaquez returned from the swollen ankle that forced him to sit out the previous game, UCLA found itself shorthanded with guards Jaylen Clark (non-COVID-19 illness) and David Singleton (concussion protocol) sidelined, depriving them of their usual wing depth. Cronin said Singleton could return Friday and Clark’s status for Saturday’s game was unknown.
Cronin has now gone 3-0 on this court with the Bruins, a streak that was in jeopardy until the final moments.
“Ultimately,” Cronin said, “just another rock fight in conference basketball. That’s just how it is.”