Smith figured he might not return until the final four minutes of the game. Instead the freshman big man was barely seated long enough to calm down and catch his breath.
With UCLA's once-comfortable double-digit lead down to two and more than 10 minutes remaining in the game, coach Ben Howland took a risk by reinserting Smith, point guard Lazeric Jones and wing Tyler Honeycutt with four fouls apiece. Smith made Howland's gamble pay off, scoring seven points, grabbing three rebounds and taking a crucial charge in the next four minutes to help UCLA regain momentum and emerge with a crucial 86-79 victory.
"I was really surprised because the first couple games I got in foul trouble, I didn't come back until toward the end," Smith said. "I knew I was going to go back, but I didn't think it was going to be that quick."
That Howland played Smith and his foul-plagued teammates the final 10 minutes was a sign of how crucial it was for the Bruins to hand 16th-ranked BYU its first loss.
First of all, it was UCLA's first marquee non-conference victory of the season and its first win over a ranked opponent since defeating Washington on Feb. 20, 2009. And perhaps even more importantly, it came in the first John R. Wooden Classic since the event's legendary namesake died on June 4 a few months shy of his 100th birthday.
UCLA lost 72-54 to Mississippi State in last season's Wooden Classic to drop its record to a dismal 2-6.
"I think it was a big deal because last year we didn't play very well here and it was the last time coach got to see us play in the game named after him," forward Reeves Nelson said. "This time coach (Howland) made it clear that not just the game but everything leading up to it was going to be dedicated to coach (Wooden). I thought we did a great job of working really hard in practice and executing in the game."
UCLA survived a 25-point onslaught from BYU star Jimmer Fredette by exploiting its size, strength and athleticism advantage in the paint. The frontcourt trio of Nelson, Honeycutt and Smith combined for 55 points and 20 rebounds, helping the Bruins rally from an early 16-6 deficit and then stave off BYU's second-half comeback bid.
Neither Smith's 15 points nor his eight boards were season highs, yet his dominance at the most critical juncture of the game made this probably the McDonalds All-American's most satisfying game of the season.His put-back of his own miss with 10:04 to play halted BYU's 11-0 run and extended UCLA's lead to 63-59. His drop-step layup on the low post made it 69-61 Bruins less than 90 seconds later. And in between all that, he slid over to the left of the rim and drew Fredette's fourth foul on a charge, a play made even gutsier by the fact that it could have been Smith's fifth personal if the call went against him.
Said Smith, "I just thought, 'I'm going to take the charge and if I'm late, I'm late.'"
Said Fredette, "I had to come out of the game and they scored a couple times in a row. That was a big turning point."
The 6-foot-10 Smith was one of the nation's most highly touted recruits when he signed with UCLA last fall, but an injury that kept him from working out and poor eating habits caused his weight to balloon to well over 300 pounds this past spring. Thanks to a new diet plan and a three cardiovascular workouts a day this summer, Smith lost 35 pounds, though he still appears heavier than the 305 pounds at which he's listed.
Recognizing that Smith was a mismatch for his team, BYU coach Dave Rose instructed his players to attack Smith in an effort to foul him out of the game. Smith had to back off BYU's Brandon Davies a couple times in the final 10 minutes, but he managed to avoid picking up the all-important fifth foul.
"He's as difficult a matchup as we've had here and this is the sixth season I've been a head coach," Rose said. "You try to get the ball out of his hands and it's difficult because he's big, he's strong and he gets really deep. And then when he shoots it, he's so big and he takes up so much space that he can just grab it again.
"I'm glad we don't play him again because we don't have to game plan for him again. If we did play him again, we'd do some things differently, but right now I don't know what that would be."
On a day when so many elite freshmen in college basketball made such big impacts, Smith's contributions deserve mention.
He didn't hit a game-winning bucket like Kansas' Josh Selby or Texas' Cory Joseph and he didn't have 30 points and 19 rebounds like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, but he was the difference-maker in UCLA's first quality win of the season.
Right now, the Bruins will gladly take that.