Josh Smith played as if he had taken a vacation at some spa, as if he somehow received magic rejuvenation treatment in the past two days.
Smith, UCLA’s massive sophomore center, missed Thursday’s game because of a concussion received in practice Wednesday.
Coming off the bench and playing restricted minutes Saturday, Smith was still the catalyst with spirited play that included big dunks and dainty tap-ins as UCLA won its second straight Pac-12 game, 75-58, over Arizona State on Saturday night at the Honda Center.
“I thought that Josh had the best game of the year,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “He was aggressive to score. When he was going to score, he was going to dunk it. He was aggressive, and it was really fun to see.”
Arizona State, which made this Los Angeles road trip with only six scholarship players after coach Herb Sendek suspended three Sun Devils last week because of an unspecified rules violation, was worn down by Smith’s strength and energy.
After the Sun Devils (5-10 overall, 1-2 in the conference) came within two points of UCLA with a Carrick Felix free throw to start the second half, the relentless move ahead by UCLA began a with a Smith layup.
The 6-foot-10, 305-pound sophomore center finished with 18 points (one below his career-high) and four rebounds in 21 minutes.
Besides Smith’s powerful play, UCLA (9-7, 2-2) had a dominating 14-0 run in the second half, and as Smith continued to call for the ball and grab post position, his teammates seemed to feed off the energy.
Not all statistics matter, but here’s one that seemed significant after the Bruins outscored Arizona State 19-6 over the last 9:48 of the first half and finished with a 9-0 run in the final 4:26 of the first 20 minutes to take a 33-30 halftime lead: UCLA had been 8-1 this season when it led or was tied at halftime but hadn’t won a game in which it trailed at halftime.
The loudest roar from the crowd came with 28.4 seconds left. Smith maneuvered with emotion, created space commensurate with his height and weight and scored a layup that was punctuated with a little fist pump.
The Bruins had fallen behind on the Sun Devils’ first offensive possession of the game, when Arizona State’s 7-foot junior Ruslan Pateev made a layup 19 seconds in.
With 12:32 left in the half, junior guard Trent Lockett completed a three-point play by converting a layup and a free throw to give the Sun Devils an 18-8 lead.
It was Smith who also gave the Bruins their first lead of the game with 2:32 left when he also converted the traditional three-point play, drawing a foul from Pateev and making the free throw to put UCLA up 31-30.
After coming off the bench early in the game, Smith was quickly called for a foul and protested to the officials. Howland shouted at his center, “Shut up and play.” And Smith did.
In the second half UCLA gradually wore down the undermanned Sun Devils.
Travis Wear put back a rebound after two Smith misses to give UCLA its first double-digit lead, 49-39, and Smith pounded down a slam dunk, then followed with a dainty finger roll on an alley-oop pass from Lazeric Jones that put UCLA ahead 53-41 with 12:08 left.
From that point, Arizona State seemed without enough energy to keep fighting Smith.