They knew they would hold onto first place in the Pac-12 Conference standings no matter what happened, the UCLA Bruins gifted the top spot by virtue of their hated rival getting flattened earlier in the evening.
The Bruins came out against Colorado on Saturday and played as if buoyed by the chance for separation. They were patient on offense and played some of their best half-court defense of the season, staying with every shooter not named McKinley Wright IV.
Then, in the final minutes of a game that seemed destined to go down to the final possession, came the mistakes. A Jules Bernard double dribble. A Tyger Campbell forced pass and a charge. A Johnny Juzang travel coming out of a timeout.
Just when it seemed like the Bruins might have broken the spell of sloppy play, Campbell stripping Wright of the ball for a steal, Juzang threw away a pass in transition. By then the Bruins had given up nine consecutive points and could never recover during a 70-61 loss to the Buffaloes at the CU Events Center.
UCLA committed six turnovers over the final 6 minutes 39 seconds, providing an inglorious end to its four-game winning streak. The Bruins (17-6 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) were left clinging to a half-game lead over USC, which had stumbled against Utah earlier in the day.
Things spiraled further toward the end when UCLA’s Cody Riley fouled out with 2:27 left and coach Mick Cronin picked up a technical foul. The Bruins finished with nine of their 14 turnovers in the second half, a losing recipe after having committed none in the second half of a win on this court last season on Colorado’s senior day.
Wright ensured himself a happy farewell this time with 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting for the Buffaloes (19-7, 13-6), who were able to withstand Juzang’s 25 points to beat the Bruins for the first time since Murry Bartow was their interim coach.
Jaylen Clark added 10 points off the bench for UCLA, becoming the only other Bruin to reach double figures in scoring on a night they needed more production. Guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. was particularly quiet, finishing with three points on one-for-six shooting, and Campbell uncharacteristically had as many turnovers (four) as assists.
It was the start of a stretch in which the Bruins will be unlikely underdogs at Oregon on Wednesday before hosting USC next Saturday.
The potential upside is that the Bruins can improve their NCAA tournament standing after entering the weekend projected as a middling No. 8 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm.
The early going Saturday was a battle of point guards, Wright and Campbell trading one highlight for another. Wright made a three-pointer in transition and drove for a layup. Campbell hit a jumper and followed it with a floater.
Wright was the only Buffalo who could roam freely against UCLA’s tight defense, darting around for layups and jumpers that sometimes seemed indefensible.
The little point guard continually took center stage, collecting 17 points by halftime after making seven of 10 shots as opposed to teammates who combined to make just six
The Bruins got a break late in the first half when officials called a ticky-tack technical foul on Colorado’s Dallas Walton for slamming the ball to the court after getting called for a foul. After Juzang made the technical foul free throws and Riley made the free throws awarded him for the foul by Walton, UCLA finally had a bit of separation with a 32-24 lead.
But that advantage was short-lived thanks to Colorado’s tiny point guard. Wright countered with a jumper, a three-pointer and a free throw as part of Colorado’s 8-0 run that deadlocked the score before the Bruins took a 35-34 lead into the locker room.