No. 9 UCLA finishes strong against Utah to avoid major upset

No. 9 UCLA finishes strong against Utah to avoid major upset

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.

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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.

They got there 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.

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.

It was the final flurry in a half of runs. 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.

UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, left, and Cody Riley (2) defend against Utah guard Rollie Worster during the first half Thursday in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

But 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.

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.”

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.

It had only felt as if the Bruins were undermanned in the post until the final minutes.

Riley took a charge, buried a baseline jumper and sank one of two free throws to help UCLA complete its comeback. He finished with five points and five rebounds in 22 foul-plagued minutes, just enough to nudge the Bruins to victory.

Johnson went scoreless with three rebounds in 13 minutes.

The Utes were also shorthanded with 7-footer Branden Carlson, their leading scorer, sidelined a fourth consecutive game because of appendicitis.

The Bruins would have been blown out by halftime if it weren’t for Juzang’s 18 first-half points on six-for-nine shooting. The rest of the team combined to make just three of 16 shots by the game’s midpoint while Utah made six of 12 three-pointers.

Cronin has now gone 3-0 on this court with the Bruins, a streak that was in jeopardy with his biggest players giving him so little before Riley stepped up as well as his teammates.

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