LOS ANGELES – UCLA has shown it can play well – even win – without Chris Smith’s scoring. The Bruins topped Marquette despite just six points from the preseason All-American. He had just three points in the second half of the team’s conference win over Utah this week.
There’s a lot more to Smith than his scoring ability, but now, UCLA will have to learn how to live without him all together – his athleticism, rebounding and leadership. The 6-foot-9 senior wing suffered a torn ACL in his left knee against Utah. It was announced he’d miss the remainder of the season an hour before Saturday’s game against Colorado.
“We didn’t know Chris was out until his MRI results came in just before the pregame shoot around,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. I was with Chris and the medical staff when we got the news, I’m probably more upset about it than him. I had a hard time even coaching tonight.”
It’s not how anyone would draw it up, but Smith’s season-ending injury creates opportunity for other players like Jules Bernard, David Singleton, and even freshman Jaylen Clark. Somehow, Smith’s 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game will need to be made up, whether it by one player, or by committee.
Bernard started in place of Smith Saturday night, scored 12 points and nabbed seven rebounds – Smith’s average – in UCLA’s 65-62 Pac-12 win over Colorado at Pauley Pavilion.
The win keeps the Bruins (7-2, 3-0) unbeaten in conference play heading into their two-game road trip at Arizona State and Arizona on Jan. 7 and 9, respectively.
“Five players scored in double figures tonight. That’s what I think this team is about,” Cronin said. “Everything is a learning process. The guys that are going to get more playing time have to get more comfortable.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with 14 points and five rebounds. Tyger Campbell had 11 points and seven assists. Johnny Juzang and Cody Riley had 10 points apiece, along with Bernard’s 12.
Steal and a monster slam for Jaime @jaquez_jr! He has a team-high 8 points so far in tonight’s game.
UCLA leads 20-19 with under six minutes to go in the first half.
— UCLA Men’s Basketball (@UCLAMBB) January 3, 2021
The game had 10 ties and seven lead changes. The two teams were tied 29-29 at halftime, and both were looking to finish the weekend 2-0, especially a traveling Colorado (7-3, 1-2), which topped USC Thursday night at the Galen Center.
Something had to give.
The table was set with five minutes to play and the game tied at 54-54 after Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV converted on a three-point play. UCLA’s Cody Riley scored back-to-back baskets to spark an 8-3 from that point, his low-post presence was key to victory down the stretch. Riley scored eight of his 10 points in the second half.
“We have all the confidence in the world in Cody (Riley) and Jalen (Hill),” Campbell said. “They’re capable passers and we know they’ll finish around the basket. We decided to play through them at the end of the game.”
UCLA outscored Colorado 38-28 in points in the paint. Cronin knew it was the way to victory, unlike Thursday’s night win which was aided by efficiency from the 3-point line. The Bruins were 3 of 15 from 3 Saturday night.
“I really wanted to win today’s game. The news (about Smith) was unfortunate, but we knew we still had a game to win,” Riley said. “We knew the game was going to be physical. Who could play the toughest was going to win.”
Colorado had possession with 26 seconds left down 62-59, but its two shot attempts from beyond the arc missed. The second miss from Maddox Daniels got wedged in between the rim and backboard, creating a jump ball. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang made two free throws to help ice the game.
More on Smith
Smith’s knee will need surgery, but his fun-loving spirit was on display Saturday night in pregame warmups considering the devastating news. He was clapping, passing basketballs to teammates and even dancing (gingerly) to the music blaring through empty Pauley Pavilion.
“I’m not surprised at all. Chris is a great, mature kid,” said Cronin.
UCLA’s Chris Smith (yellow shirt) on the floor. Has a slight limp. But moving around while he can before surgery, most likely. From the postgame conferences, he seems like a good teammate that will try and bring the energy on the bench. pic.twitter.com/qAXXkgRL4T
— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) January 3, 2021
Smith entered his name into the 2020 NBA Draft before deciding to withdraw and play his senior campaign for the Bruins. It was a near certainty that Smith would put his name into the 2021 draft, but with the season-ending injury and the NCAA’s decision to grant all student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the unpredictability of COVID-19’s impact on this season, Smith could return to Westwood for another year.
“Chris and I talked about (the NBA). When he made the decision to come back, multiple (NBA) teams called me and said they were impressed with his maturity (to withdraw his name),” Cronin said. “I think he’s played his last game as a Bruin. If anything changes, we’d obviously welcome him back.”
He’s the reigning Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year, and the team’s only All-Pac-12 player, after improving his points per game mark from 6.3 his sophomore season to 13.1 as a junior. His best game this season came against Pepperdine when he tallied 26 points and 12 rebounds in a triple overtime thriller.
“After speaking with our team doctors and medical staff, I’m confident that Chris will make a quick and full recovery,” Cronin said. “Obviously, he is very disappointed and his teammates feel for him. Everyone at UCLA will help Chris through this, and I know that he will work relentlessly to be back to 100 percent.