UCLA beats Colorado after learning Chris Smith has torn ACL, probably ending Bruins career

UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) celebrates after scoring against Colorado during the first half Jan. 2, 2021, in Los Angeles.
UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1), who scored 12 points and started in place of Chris Smith, celebrates after scoring against Colorado on Saturday. The Bruins prevailed 65-62.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

In a crushing moment, Mick Cronin telling his star player that his UCLA season was over, it was Chris Smith who rose once more, consoling his coach with an arm around the shoulder.

A few hours later, the senior guard materialized at warmups Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion in a yellow T-shirt and long black pants, throwing his teammates passes, grabbing rebounds and casually burying a corner three-pointer. Smith smiled easily, as if he would be back next week, even though his next game probably will come in the NBA.

“He’s probably played his last game as a Bruin,” Cronin said after his team persevered for a 65-62 victory over Colorado in its first game since Smith suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee two days earlier.


Cronin delivered the news before the team’s shoot-around and said he was probably more upset than Smith, who surprised some NBA executives by returning for this season to bolster his draft standing after becoming the Pac-12 Conference’s most improved player as a junior.

“It’s tough for me, guys,” Cronin said. “It’s tough for me to even coach today.”

Discussion about UCLA’s 65-62 win over Colorado and Bruins star Chris Smith’s season-ending ACL injury.

Smith was a lively cheerleader from the bench. When the Bruins (7-2 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) kept the Buffaloes from getting a shot off on one early possession, he tapped the top of his head to signify the shot-clock violation. After Jaime Jaquez Jr. drove the lane and took a pass for a monstrous dunk, Smith chest-bumped Jalen Hill.

Finally, after Tyger Campbell swatted away the Buffaloes’ full-court pass in the final second, Smith pumped his fist in celebration of UCLA’s second consecutive victory.

The Bruins won in similar fashion to the way they had succeeded with Smith in their lineup. Jaquez scored 14 points to lead five players in double figures after the team divvied up Smith’s minutes among its wing players and moved freshman guard Jaylen Clark into the rotation.

“Seeing our brother down like that, that really kind of gave us a flame to go out there and play harder and to get the win for him,” said Cody Riley, who complemented his 10 points and five rebounds with a strong defensive showing and helped the Bruins bludgeon the Buffaloes with 38 points in the paint.

Colorado (7-3, 1-2) had two chances to tie the score in the final minute, missing a pair of three-pointers. The second attempt got wedged between the rim and the backboard, giving the ball back to UCLA on the alternating possession. The Buffaloes then fouled Johnny Juzang (10 points) on the inbounds pass and the Bruins made enough free throws over the last five seconds.

Cronin said Smith did not suffer any cartilage damage and should fully recover, though the coach did not anticipate his second-leading scorer returning to UCLA in 2021-22 as part of extra eligibility granted to all players this season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If something was to change then obviously we’d welcome him back,” Cronin said, “but I don’t think that’s the case.”

UCLA guard Chris Smith dribbles during a game against Pepperdine on Nov. 27, 2020.
UCLA guard Chris Smith dribbles during a game against Pepperdine on Nov. 27. Smith sustained a torn ACL in the Bruins’ win over Utah on Thursday.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Smith was averaging 12.6 points per game, trailing only Jaquez on UCLA’s roster, and had put together his finest performance of the season in the early going against Utah, making all six of his shots in the first half. For the season, Smith also averaged 6.4 rebounds while making 43.8% of his shots, 50% of his three-pointers and 79.4% of his free throws.

Jules Bernard took Smith’s spot in the starting lineup Saturday and struggled in the early going. But he rebounded to finish with 12 points, making four of seven shots.

UCLA’s identity is unlikely to change without Smith, Cronin said, noting its scoring balance. The coach said he needed to create more opportunities for reserve guards David Singleton and Jake Kyman while finding ways for Clark to play alongside Jaquez as part of a bigger lineup than he’s routinely used.

“I think we can still be a great offensive team,” Cronin said.

It will take some adjusting in a season already beset by unprecedented difficulties, Jaquez describing the team as heartbroken over the loss of its most veteran player.

“He was our only senior so this season,” Jaquez said, “we’re gonna try to try to play this one for him.”