Tyger Campbell went flying to the floor underneath the basket, and the race was on to see who could help him up first.
All four of the UCLA freshman point guard’s teammates sprinted over, converging in a mass of camaraderie, after he had made a crossover move that he completed by driving into the paint and banking in a layup while getting fouled.
The Bruins were there for Campbell after he had been there for them Sunday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion, willing his team to a 73-57 victory over Utah that continued its dramatic uptick in fortunes.
“It just shows how together we are as a team,” Campbell said of the helping hands. “Winning brings people together.”
For the season’s first two months, the Bruins were only close to the edge. Their defense was pitiful, their ballhandling sloppy and their ability to close out games just a suggestion.
In recent weeks, UCLA (12-10, 5-4 Pac-12 Conference) has made drastic improvements in each of those categories to win two consecutive games and four of five, putting it just 1½ games behind first-place Oregon in the conference standings.
The Bruins’ latest triumph came thanks largely to the floppy-haired point guard whose up-and-down season took a dramatic turn for the better. Campbell finished with a career-high 22 points and eight assists to go with only one turnover, a stunning breakthrough for someone who entered the game averaging 3.4 points in Pac-12 play and had not scored in double figures since late December.
“It’s tough being a young guy when everybody expects the world from you in your first year,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of Campbell, who was sidelined last season by major knee surgery and wore a bulky brace until only recently. “Unfortunately, that’s how college basketball has changed for the worse. But he stood in there and kept working and got better.”
Campbell thrived in pick-and-roll situations, particularly during a second half in which he made six of nine shots while scoring 16 points and helping his team withstand every threat.
The Utes (12-9, 3-6) were within 50-46 after guard Alfonso Plummer buried an open three-pointer from the corner, but Campbell followed a spin move with a floater before finding Jules Bernard for a three-pointer. It was the start of a 17-2 run that extinguished Utah’s comeback hopes and allowed Cronin to remove Campbell in the final minute so that a crowd including Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda High senior guard Jaylen Clark, one of UCLA’s most coveted recruits, could shower him with applause.
Freshman guard Jaime Jaquez added 18 points and four steals and sophomore forward Jalen Hill had 14 points and eight rebounds for the Bruins, whose surge has been sparked by increasingly stout defense. The Bruins held Utah to 39.3% shooting and have given up an average of just 63.8 points over their last five games.
It’s all part of Cronin’s ongoing efforts to switch UCLA’s identity from one focused on offense to defense while changing widespread perceptions about his players.
“People have a lot of prejudice in the world, unfortunately,” Cronin said. “They prejudge West Coast kids. They prejudge UCLA kids, saying they’re soft or they’re selfish. These guys are proving that they’re not. We’re not a finished product, but their effort is there. That’s all you can really ask, and you just try to build habits over time.”
As evidence of his team’s growing toughness, Cronin pointed to Cody Riley. The sophomore forward finished with just two points and six rebounds but was a brute against the Utes, collecting three steals and reaching in to force a jump ball that gave his team possession.
Cronin said it’s a brand of ferociousness that his young players rarely displayed in high school because their coaches asked them to defend without fouling so that they could stay in the game.
“Cody has never fought around the post to make those types of plays in his life,” Cronin said.
It was those sorts of unsung contributions that allowed the Bruins to withstand a quiet game from guard Chris Smith, their leading scorer who followed a
30-point outburst against Colorado with just six points in 17 foul-plagued minutes. It also helped that they committed only 10 turnovers for a second consecutive game.
Campbell delivered one final assist when he met with reporters after the game, crediting his fellow Bruins for his performance.
“I wouldn’t be able to what I did today without my team finding me and Jalen setting amazing ball screens,” Campbell said, prompting a smile from his teammate seated nearby. “It’s really just a team effort.”