Down one starter in Mikael Jantunen and riding a three-game losing streak, expectations were likely a little low when Utah met first-place UCLA on Thursday night the at Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Unfortunately for the Utes, they failed to show up for the full 40 minutes and couldn't overcome a slow start to the second half, falling 76-61 to the visiting Bruins.
“Where we really struggled tonight is we had some lackadaisical moments,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "We had a little bit of give-up in us, which can’t be part of our identity. It gets a little hard, puts pressure on your offense when you come down and you are taking the ball out of the net all the time. We put our guard down, and we’ve got to be dialed.”
Krystkowiak was correct when saying the Utes put their guard down, as a 14-minute stretch that spanned the first half and second half was their ultimate undoing.
Utah tied the game at 22 with 6:33 remaining in the first half following a deep jumper from Alfonso Plummer. But the Utes then fell apart over the next 14 minutes of game time as they found themselves trailing 60-39 with 12 minutes left to play.
Utah made one last gasp to get int the game, cutting the deficit to 14 with 5:46 to play following a quick 5-0 spurt capitalized by an Ian Martinez three-pointer. But their next three possessions all came up scoreless as the Utes missed back-to-back three-pointers and turned the ball over, which led to a UCLA three-pointer.
"I never really thought our guys gave up, but it just puts so much pressure on you," Krystkowiak said of Utah's defense. "There were times when we had great defensive effort. We got them to miss. There were also times we had great defensive effort and concentration, and they scored, and that is where that line gets drawn.”
Where the Utes were really doomed was their play at the rim. They missed at least 8-10 point-blank layups, shots that usually fall. That was the biggest difference in the game and something Utah wasn't able to overcome, despite the play of big man Branden Carlson.
Carlson finished with a team-high 17 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the floor (1-of-3 from beyond the arc), adding in six rebounds and four blocks. He was very active on both ends of the court and his ability to spread the floor with his shooting is what's allowed him to take his game to the next level.
Riley Battin and Ian Martinez also scored in double figures with 10 points each, knocking down two three-pointers apiece.
But the real struggle came from Timmy Allen and Plummer, who came into the game averaging a combined 30 points. They were both held in check as Allen finished with 8 points (4-of-13 shooting) while Plummer was pressured all night into finishing with seven points (3-of-9 shooting).
The positive for is that point guard Rylan Jones returned from a shoulder injury to play 17 minutes, dishing out seven assists with zero turnovers. Although he didn't score, his presence on the court was a huge momentum boost.
Utah didn't shoot that poorly on the night, finishing 45% (26-for-58) from the floor and 43% (9-for-21) from beyond the arc. But it was the first time in program history that the Utes failed to shoot a single free throw.
“I don’t know if I have ever coached a game where we haven’t shot a free throw, so that was a little bit odd,” Krystkowiak said. “But I thought we were playing the game the right way. They are a good defensive team, a physical team, and we did some things that were positive — low turnovers, battled even on the glass, shared the ball. We just need to make more shots.”
The Bruins were nearly unconscious shooting the ball, knocking down 55% (31-of-56) from the floor and 58% (11-of-19) from beyond the arc.
Jules Bernard led UCLA in scoring with 19 points (4-of-6 from three-point territory), while Johnny Juzang (18 points), Cody Riley (15 points) and Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11 points) all finished in double figures.
Utah will now turn its attention to No. 19 USC on Saturday night, a team coming off a brutal 18-point loss to Colorado on Thursday night. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. and will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
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