On Jan. 4, UCLA was outclassed in a 32-point blowout at Utah. It marked the Bruins’ fifth consecutive loss, a streak that also included a 39-point defeat to Kentucky, in which UCLA was held to just seven first-half points, and a double-digit loss to Gonzaga. The Bruins had hit rock bottom.
Less than a month later, on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA stunned the 11th-ranked Utes 69-59. This is one of the more shocking results we’ve seen since conference play began around the turn of the New Year.
While UCLA had righted the ship to some extent with three consecutive wins over Stanford, Cal and USC following the aforementioned embarrassing Utah loss, the Bruins followed that stretch by losing to both Oregon schools by double digits. Those results, coupled with Utah’s emergence as the Pac-12’s clear-cut second-best team behind Arizona, didn’t suggest the Bruins could pull the upset.
UCLA may have come up short had guard Norman Powell not turned in another strong performance. Five days after scoring 23 points in an 18-point loss to the Ducks, he matched that total on 9-of-16 shooting and added four rebounds.
The senior guard scored eight points in UCLA's game-turning 12-0 run after halftime and pushed the Bruins’ lead to 15 with a layup around the 13-minute mark in the second half. Utah got within seven on a Brandon Taylor three with around three minutes remaining, but the Bruins made enough free throws to hold on for the win.
While this will probably go down as UCLA’s best victory of the season, one should hesitate before painting it as a breakthrough moment for the Bruins. Coach Steve Alford’s team is coming off consecutive losses to squads that probably won’t make the tournament, and it’s entirely possible that UCLA will lose to Colorado on Saturday.
For Utah, this should probably be filed away as one of those weird, largely unexplainable road losses that occur regularly in college basketball. The Utes have proven over the course of this season, including against UCLA, that they’re far superior to the Bruins. They just happened to drop the second head-to-head matchup.
It wasn’t so long ago that Utah was picking UCLA apart in demoralizing fashion. On Thursday night, UCLA sprung an upset that few saw coming. What do the results suggest about both teams? It’s hard to say.
In other words, this game does nothing to dispute Utah’s standing as one of the top teams in the Pac-12, though it could hurt its NCAA tournament seed.
The Utes responded to a Jan. 17 loss at Arizona, their lone defeat in conference play prior to Thursday, with convincing wins over the Washington schools. Expect Larry Krystkowiak’s team to get back on track with upcoming games at USC and Colorado.