The Bruins had their bench to thank for their early lead, but when the going got tough in the final moments, if was the usual suspects who lifted them above the Buffaloes.
No. 5 UCLA men's basketball (7-1, 1-0 Pac-12) defeated Colorado (6-2, 1-1) at Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday night, staving off a comeback to win their conference opener 73-61. The Bruins never trailed, but let the Buffaloes get within four points in the second half until guards Tyger Campbell, Johny Juzang and Jules Bernard created separation down the stretch.
Campbell led the UCLA in scoring, getting over half of his 21 points in the second half, and center Myles Johnson went as far as calling his teammate a walking bucket during the postgame press conference.
"I like to take to big shots, I'm sure every player does," Campbell said. "Today, the shots went it. I just kept shooting."
The Bruins got out to a lead in the opening minutes, but it had a tough time pulling away – until the bench got involved, that is.
The Buffaloes had just cut the deficit to six points inside the eight-minute mark, then drew an offensive foul out of guard Tyger Campbell the next possession to give themselves a shot at making it a one-score game. Coach Mick Cronin took that opportunity to make some changes, bringing in big man Kenneth Nwuba and guard/forward Jake Kyman.
Guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA's second-leading scorer entering Wednesday, had already been knocked out of the game after getting fouled and slamming his head on the floor several minutes earlier, so adding that to forward Cody Riley's absence, Cronin was working with a shortened rotation.
The reserves did their job, as Nwuba converted on a pick-and-roll with guard Johnny Juzang. Juzang added a fast break score to make it a 10-point game, but then he got subbed out for guard David Singleton, who started to initiate the offense alongside guard Jules Bernard.
Guard Jaylen Clark received a kick-out from Singleton, then drove hard down the left side, finishing with the powerful slam. Colorado missed an open 3-pointer on the other end, and it was Clark who pulled down the rebound, led the fast break and dribbled behind the back before dishing it to Singleton, who swung it to Bernard for the transition 3.
That sequence put UCLA up 33-16, and Colorado immediately traveled on the ensuing possession and turned it over for the seventh time on the night. The five-man lineup of Bernard, Singleton, Kyman, Clark and Nwuba was a plus-4 and didn't miss a shot in the nearly four minutes they played together in the first half.
"I thought that was a big part of why we were able to put the run on them, keep trying to push the ball, keep trying to use our bench," Cronin said.
Even when the starters eventually came back in, they rode the momentum and led the Bruins to a 39-23 lead at halftime, but things stalled against after the break.
Colorado opened the second half with three unanswered layups before Johnson got a dunk and Campbell and Juzang hit a couple of 3-pointers to make it a 15-point game again. UCLA fell quiet from the field after that sequence, however, missing its next eight shots and turning the ball over three times to let the Buffaloes back into it.
The Bruins had opened the game 18-2 in points off turnovers, but they conceded six in a row in that category as part of the Buffaloes' 12-1 run in the middle chunk of the second half that made it a 48-44 contest.
It was the starters who dug UCLA out of the rut this time, with Juzang hitting a couple free throws, Campbell getting a floater to roll in and Bernard laying one in after a pump fake. Johnson created some loose balls on the defensive end, but he got yanked after picking up his fourth foul, much to Cronin's dismay.
Johnson's big man counterpart, Colorado's Evan Battey, fouled up the very next possession with over six minutes to go, though, and the Bruins immediately took advantage with a give-and-go that resulted in a corner 3 by Campbell. The point guard hit a fadeaway midrange jumper not long after, giving him 13 points in the second half.
Cronin pointed out postgame that Colorado's game plan was to make Campbell a shooter, and he was glad that the point guard was aggressive and rose to the challenge.
"Tyger’s got to be a guy that’s capable of that," Cronin said. "If you have that game plan, he’ll just go get 21."
Bernard hit a 3-pointer and Johnson got a layup to count thanks to basket interference, and then Campbell iced things with a step-back 3 inside of the three-minute mark. The Buffaloes kept pushing, but couldn't get it within single digits for the remainder of the game.
In addition to his season-best scoring night, Campbell finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while Juzang had 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Johnson ended the night with a double-double, putting up 12 points and 10 boards in addition to a block and a steal.
Johnson also had 14 deflections, and Cronin credited him with a "UCLA Triple-Double" as a result, on a night that former Bruin and the NBA's all-time leader in triple-doubles Russell Westbrook was sitting courtside as an honorary team captain.
"Happy with whoever got to see it – Russell, anybody, whoever," Johnson said. "I'd be happy that my performance was seen and happy we got the dub today."
UCLA will get back to action Sunday against Washington up in Seattle, with tip-off slated for 12 p.m. The Huskies have had COVID-19 issues within their program, however, leading to their contest Thursday against Arizona getting called off, so it remains to be seen if the Bruins will actually get to compete on Sunday.