The buzzer sounded and Chris Smith looked toward the rafters with clenched fists raised above his head.
Smith’s career-high 30 points led UCLA to a 72-68 upset of No.20 Colorado on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion as the Bruins (11-10, 4-4 Pac-12) ended a four-game losing streak in the series.
The victory is UCLA’s first over a ranked opponent since Feb. 8, 2018, when the Bruins knocked off No.13 Arizona. UCLA had lost six straight against ranked teams, but earned a morale-boosting win after getting crushed by No.8 Oregon last week.
“Tonight was definitely a confidence booster,” Smith said. “It shows us and everyone else that we can hang with some of the best. … We got some young guys that don’t play like they’re young.”
Freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 12 points and seven rebounds with three made free throws late in the game. Smith laughed as he admitted he likely wouldn’t have hit those clutch shots as a freshman. Redshirt senior Prince Ali busted out of a four-game slump with 11 points, making three-of-three three-pointers, and grabbing five rebounds.
Although Colorado (16-5, 5-3 Pac-12) entered with the best rebounding margin in the Pac-12, it was the Bruins who won the boards, 39-29. After getting out-rebounded by 12 in a pair of losses to Colorado last year, the Bruins were determined to show their toughness Thursday.
“We’re trying to build a program,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, “and you’re never going to build a program if you’re going to get pushed around, especially at home.”
The Bruins reached for rebounds, wrestled for loose balls and jumped into passing lanes in a spirited first half. Their effort paid off: two shot-clock violations, five steals and 13 defensive rebounds to Colorado’s single offensive rebound. The half featured a 16-2 UCLA run, which included 14 consecutive points over more than five minutes.
But with an inexperienced UCLA team against a veteran Colorado squad, it seemed possible that the Bruins would collapse.
The implosion happened slowly. A travel. A fouled three-point shooter. A charge. Suddenly, UCLA’s 15-point lead was down to three and the Bruins had committed five turnovers in the first five minutes of the second half after just four in the entire first half.
The Buffaloes got to within two with 7:22 to go, but UCLA didn’t fold this time. The Bruins responded with 11 straight points with seven of them coming at the free throw line.
In a season that’s featured more frustrating losses than surprising wins, the Bruins knew Thursday’s game was an opportunity for a statement. The game was on ESPN2, Cronin pointed out. Recruits would be watching. He hoped the Bruins sent the right message.
“You try to send a message about guys doing two things: they’re going to play really hard and they’re going to play together,” Cronin said. “We’ve been going through a bonding experience ... where they realize their fates are relying on each other and no one’s going to feel sorry for us.”