LOS ANGELES — UCLA coach Mick Cronin said part of his team’s scouting report for the Bruins’ game last Sunday against the Runnin’ Utes was keeping guard Deivon Smith out of the paint.

Cronin also bluntly assessed that UCLA came up well short of accomplishing that task in a 70-69 loss to Utah at Pauley Pavilion.

“Smith is fast and we failed miserably in our game plan to back up and make him shoot, all the way up until the last play. The goal was to back up and make him shoot,” Cronin told reporters.

“The last two plays, he got it to the rim on the last two plays — our whole game plan was to back up and make him shoot. We didn’t get the job done, that falls on me. Disappointing.”

Utah’s will was tested against UCLA, but Runnin’ Utes rose to the occasion

That’s just the latest example of the impact Smith is making in his lone season playing in the Pac-12 Conference.

The Georgia Tech transfer, who started his career at Mississippi State, has been a gem of a find for the Utah men’s basketball team, particularly with fellow point guard Rollie Worster continuing to miss time with a lower leg injury.

Smith’s impact continued to grow during the Runnin’ Utes’ most recent stretch, when Utah lost a close game at USC last Thursday before beating UCLA for Utah’s first Pac-12 road win of the season.

Utah guard Deivon Smith goes up for a shot during the closing seconds of the game against USC on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Growing as a leader

During that two-game swing, Smith averaged 18 points, 8.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds, rallying from a rare scoreless night for the guard the week before in a loss to Arizona State.

The UCLA game was Smith’s fourth with 10 or more assists this season.

“Deivon’s an amazing player, he makes a lot of great reads for us. He’s one of the best guards in the nation,” teammate Branden Carlson said after the win over UCLA. “He’s a lot to handle — he can score from all three levels and makes really good decisions, and when you have to come and help, he just finds the open man.”

Against the Trojans, Smith consistently attacked the lane and finished with a team-high 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, all while making 7 of 8 free throws. 

He also had a chance to tie the game late, rebounding a missed free throw with under 11 seconds to play and quickly pushed the ball upcourt with Utah down two. Smith was met at the hoop, though, by Joshua Morgan, who blocked his layup attempt and sealed the Trojans’ 68-64 win.

Three nights after that disappointment, Smith got some redemption in a defining win over a UCLA program that entered the day on a six-game winning streak.

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Smith accounted for a team-high-tying 17 points against the Bruins, shooting 6 of 11 from the floor while making all five of his free-throw attempts.

He added 10 assists, four rebounds and a steal to just two turnovers, with six of those assists coming after halftime when Utah rallied time and again against UCLA after falling behind by as many as seven points in the first half.

Utah finished the contest with only nine turnovers, helping the Utes keep the Bruins from running away with the game, and Smith played a big role in that effort.

“I thought Deivon took a big step forward tonight,” Utah coach Craig Smith said.

“First of all, we only had nine turnovers. We’ve had three issues in the last couple of games and specifically on the road — free-throw shooting, unforced turnovers and not tough enough on the defensive end, for whatever reason,” he said. “And tonight, I thought we did all three.” 

The coach specifically lauded his point guard for his decision-making.

“There’s very few unforced turnovers and they made some plays, but we toughened up in there and I thought his decision-making was very good tonight,” the Utah coach said.

“He was tight with the ball, tight with his game and just made a lot of the right plays. This team needs that out of him, and that’s what he’s got to do to be the very best player that he could possibly be.”

Utah guard Deivon Smith and UCLA guard Dylan Andrews battle for a loose ball during game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Eric Thayer, Associated Press

Delivering when needed

Deivon Smith came up with clutch moments twice in the final minute — first, with Utah trailing by one and with the chance to take the lead, Smith drove into the lane and fed Keba Keita for a short jumper to give the Utes a 68-67 lead with 19.5 seconds to play.

After UCLA responded by retaking the lead on a long Dylan Andrews jumper with 6.6 seconds to go, the Utes called timeout.

Utah started its final possession with the ball on its end line and Cole Bajema threw inbounds to Carlson along the sideline before Carlson quickly passed to Smith as he neared midcourt.

Smith then expertly split a pair of UCLA defenders near the 3-point line and cut straight to the basket, where he was met by Bruins center Adem Bona.

Smith got a shot off over Bona, but it went high and bounced off the front edge of the top of the backboard, though it set up the chance for Carlson (who had 17 points and seven rebounds) to collect the rebound and roll in a putback to give Utah the lead with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Reversing the script from three days before, this time it was the Utes celebrating a last-second play in a close win. 

That final play, and the one on Utah’s penultimate possession, epitomized Cronin’s assessment that UCLA had little answer for Smith.

“Terrible scouting report defense against Deivon Smith. Terrible,” Cronin lamented. “Not keeping him out of the paint, all the way to the end. It’s not like we didn’t know that he has been starting at the point since we played them, since Worster got hurt.”

“Terrible scouting report defense against Deivon Smith. Terrible. Not keeping him out of the paint, all the way to the end.” — UCLA coach Mick Cronin, on the Bruins’ inability to slow down Deivon Smith

Craig Smith praised the growth he saw from Deivon Smith in the win.

“He just made a lot of right plays, drawing, kicking, pitching it up ahead,” the coach said. “I thought he toughened up on the defensive end consistently tonight. It made life hard on the guys that he was guarding.”

Deivon Smith, for his part, was gracious in praising the team’s resiliency in the much-needed victory that lifted Utah to 16-10 overall and 7-8 in league play.

“It’s our first road win of the (conference) season, so it’s a blessing,” he said. “We went through a lot to get that one, a lot of struggles in the past, a lot of tight games. I think that was a real good win for our confidence and moving forward.”

Making an impact

Smith has scored in double-figures in eight of his 10 starts, and he’s become the straw that stirs the drink for the Utes offense.

At USC and UCLA, the shifty, athletic guard showcased his speed and ability to match up well with some of the top-rated talent the Pac-12 has to offer.

He also is a reliable rebounder — Smith is tied for 12th in the league with Keita, averaging 6.0 rebounds per game in Pac-12 play.

Smith’s two triple-doubles this season are tied for second in the country.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Utah (16-10, 7-8 Pac-12)
at Colorado (17-9, 8-7 Pac-12)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
CU Events Center, Boulder, Colorado
TV: Pac-12 Network
ESPN: 700 AM

One thing is especially clear with five games left in the regular season — Smith is an elite facilitator, not just in the Pac-12, but nationally.

He leads the league during Pac-12 play with 101 assists, or 6.73 per game.

That is more than 1.5 assists per game more than the second-best player in conference play — Washington’s Sahvir Wheeler is averaging 5.13 assists per game during Pac-12 action.

As Utah men’s basketball sports information director John Vu pointed out, Smith is also eighth nationally in assists since Jan. 1, with 90.

If his 6.7 assists-per-game average from Pac-12 play translated across the nonconference portion of the schedule, when Smith missed nine games as he waited to become eligible, he would be seventh nationally in assists per game.

The 6-foot point guard, though, is just focused on the future, and how he and his teammates can finish up the regular season, with a game at Colorado (Saturday, 7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) up next.

“We gotta go on the road this weekend in Colorado, so I think that (win over UCLA) would give us a lot of confidence to go on the road and handle business,” he said. “We’ve got two more home games and we finish off the season on the road. 

“It’s just a confidence booster to get that first road win and see those buckets go in — a big confidence booster.”

Utah guard Deivon Smith drives to the basket against UCLA forward Adem Bona during game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Eric Thayer, Associated Press