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A wretched year tried to deal UCLA a few final blows Thursday evening.
The Bruins briefly lost top scorer Chris Smith to a knee injury and found themselves needing one last defensive stop after a sloppy stretch gave Utah an opening in the final seconds.
UCLA’s usually steady Tyger Campbell committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions and Jalen Hill missed two of four free throws in the final minute, giving the Utes one more chance while trailing by two points.
With his team needing to go the length of the court in 3.9 seconds, Utes guard Pelle Larsson took the inbounds pass from the baseline. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang and Campbell tried to trap Larsson as he curled toward the sideline before Larsson cut back toward the middle of the court with Juzang matching him step for step.
Cut off by the time he reached the free-throw line, Larsson whirled to throw a pass toward what appeared to be an open teammate on the wing.
Only he wasn’t so open.
“That’s probably the only defensive thing I’m happy about tonight,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after his team allowed 11 layups in the second half.
Smith returned from the left knee injury he suffered late in the first half, adding a big corner three-pointer to provide a 68-64 lead and help the Bruins (6-2 overall, 2-0 Pac-12 Conference) prevail in their first game after a nearly two-week layoff.
Smith was later diagnosed with a bone bruise that required further evaluation after finishing with 13 of his team-high 16 points in the first half. Juzang and Bernard added 13 points each for the Bruins, who committed eight of their nine turnovers in the second half.
Campbell committed three of his four turnovers in the second half, including two on bad passes in the final 1:27 while struggling to read the Utes’ interior defense. He acknowledged afterward that he probably should have shot the ball instead of throwing those passes.
“He spoils us because if he gets more than one it’s front-page news,” Cronin said of Campbell, who also finished with nine points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals, “but I think that’s an aberration for him.”
Bernard largely stifled Utah’s Alfonso Plummer after Plummer opened the game by making his first five shots, including four three-pointers, before the first media timeout, prompting Cronin to later compare Plummer to NBA legend World B. Free. Plummer made just two of his final 11 shots on the way to a game-high 22 points.
But Plummer got the best of the matchup with five seconds left and the Utes (4-2, 1-1) trailing by three points when he pump-faked Bernard into the air and drew a foul on a three-pointer.
“I have to be more disciplined on that and just make him shoot a tough one over me,” Bernard said.
Plummer failed to tie the score after he missed the first free throw and made the next two, but Hill also missed one of two free throws after the Utes fouled him on the ensuing inbounds pass with 3.9 seconds left.
That provided another chance for Utah, and for Bernard to make up for his earlier mistake.
The final pass that Larsson threw? It was intended for Plummer, who could only place his hands on his head in disbelief as Bernard dribbled out the clock, providing a harbinger of what the Bruins hope are better days ahead after a rough 2020.
“You move on from bad plays,” Bernard said, “to make good plays.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.