Johnny Juzang was not going to go home with a loss.
Behind his team-high 28 points, No. 9 UCLA men's basketball (12-2, 4-1 Pac-12) beat Utah (8-11, 1-8) and just narrowly avoided its second loss in three games with a 63-58 win in Salt Lake City on Thursday night. The two teams were separated by five points or fewer for the final 33 minutes of the game, and for much of the contest, Juzang was the only Bruin who could get things going from the field.
The first half was pretty much all Juzang, at least in terms of the Bruins' offense. The team's de facto leading scorer accounted for 17 of UCLA's first 23 points, starting the night 6-of-8 from the field and 3-of-4 from deep while the rest of his teammates were a combined 2-of-12 without a 3-pointer.
Early on, it seemed like Juzang's one-man show would be enough, considering the Bruins were already up by nine points less than four minutes into the contest. The Utes opened things up shooting 2-of-9 from the field, and without leading scorer Branden Carlson, who was out with an appendectomy, it seemed like they wouldn't be able to do much on offense.
Utah then flipped a switch and drilled six of their next 10 shots, half of which were 3-pointers. Defensive ace Jaylen Clark and bench guard David Singleton were both unavailable for the game with an illness and concussion, respectively, meaning coach Mick Cronin had to concoct a new rotation for the hostile road environment.
Guard/forward Jake Kyman came off the bench earlier than he had all season, and the Bruins were outscored 11-0 in just his first three minutes on the court. On the night, the blue and gold were outscored 28-3 in bench points, and all four reserves who played finished with a negative plus-minus.
Juzang's continued scoring prowess kept UCLA in it, and guard/forward Jaime Jaquez finally got a layup to go to play his part. Even still, there were three ties and three lead-changes across the second half of the first half, and the two teams were locked in a one-possession game for the final 11:42 of the opening period.
Bernard's 3-pointer with a minute left before the break was the first field goal by a Bruin other than Juzang or Jaquez, but forward Riley Battin immediately answered with a long ball of his own that took a lucky bounce and gave the Utes a 32-31 lead at the half.
Battin was one of six Utah players to make a 3-pointer in the first alone, despite the team entering the game with just 7.5 triples made per game.
The beginning of the second half was much of the same, with the Utes still nailing 3s and the two teams flip-flopping on the scoreboard. There were another two ties and two lead-changes in the first three minutes of the second frame, with Bernard continuing to add points and guard Tyger Campbell finally getting a shot of his own to fall.
UCLA and Utah went over two-and-a-half minutes without hitting a field goal, missing a combined five shots during that stretch. The Bruins followed that up with a run of four turnovers in less than four minutes, failing to pull away and letting the Utes retake the lead just inside the 12-minute mark.
That was all part of a messy seven-minute stretch for UCLA that included missed layups, unnecessary crosscourt passes and five consecutive misses.
Guard Lazar Stefanovic hit a transition 3 to cap off a 7-0 run and give the Utes their largest lead of the night at four, which only came to be because Campbell went down hard on the other end and clutched his lower back on the ground in pain, unable to get back on defense.
Campbell managed to stay in the game, and it was his inbound lob to Juzang a few minutes later that led to the game-tying midrange jumper. Forward Cody Riley, who finally got his first points of the night a few possessions earlier, drilled a signature baseline jumper to put the Bruins up by two again, then Bernard made it four by converting on a pair of free throws.
It only took a few possessions for Utah to vault back ahead, though, as guard Gabe Madsen drilled an open 3 with less than six minutes to go to put his team up by one and force Cronin to burn a timeout.
Riley split his two free throws the next possession, setting the Utes up to go back up by 3 when guard Both Gach drilled a triple, only for Bernard to answer with one of his own seconds later. It was Campbell who gave the Bruins a two-point lead via his pull-up jumper inside four minutes, then Juzang sank an acrobatic running floater to make it four.
Stefanovic knocked down another 3 to cut that deficit to one, then it was – who else – Juzang who drew a loose ball foul and hit both free throws to give UCLA a little more breathing room.
Each team went 1-of-2 on their next trip to the free throw line, and Jaquez drew a charge to prevent Utah from putting up a potential game-tying 3-point attempt inside 30 seconds. The Utes had two more tries at forcing overtime, but they hit rim on both and let Bernard nail a couple of insurance free throws with a second left on the clock.
Thanks to his 8-of-10 night from the charity stripe, Bernard joined Juzang as the only other UCLA player to finish in double figures at 14.
UCLA will take a quick trip to Colorado and face off against the Buffaloes on Saturday, with that game set to tip off at 6 p.m.