Bruin Comeback Falls Short

The Bruins were looking for a sweep of their first Pac-12 road trip, but a slow start at Utah was too much to overcome...

After a solid win Thursday night at Colorado, the Bruins came out flat Saturday afternoon in Utah and, despite a nice run late in the game, ended up losing 74-69. For UCLA, the somewhat improved defense of the last 3-4 games was nowhere to be found, as Utah patiently worked for open shots virtually the entire game. Without the heroic efforts of Kyle Anderson, and some second half help from Zach LaVine, the Bruins probably would have lost this game by 20.

The first five to seven minutes of the game established the story lines that would stay pretty consistent for most of the contest. The Bruins defense was a step slow, whether they were in man or zone, and the Utes got wide open jump shots when they took care of the ball. After a couple of early three-pointers from Brandon Taylor, Kyle Anderson responded with consecutive threes of his own and it seemed that perhaps the Bruins would be able to overcome their flat start.

But as would be the case for most of the game, the Bruins had difficulty maintaining their defensive focus. They started having trouble with their communication on ball screens, giving up a few lay-ups, and then fell apart in their transition defense as well. The Utes weren't looking to play fast, but they smartly took advantage when the Bruins were lax getting back. Utah went on a 15-0 run and it was looking like the Bruins might get blown out.

While the Bruins were struggling at the defensive end, they weren't doing a whole lot better on offense. Their offense had no rhythm at all and it basically consisted of Kyle Anderson going one-on-one. Fortunately for UCLA, Anderson was hot and he single-handedly kept the Bruins in the game. Whether it was knocking down threes, or getting in the lane for mid-range shots, Anderson was feeling it. With no other Bruins seemingly able to do much against the Utes defense, it was up to Anderson to carry the Bruins. Even with his heroics, the Bruins scored a season low 26 points in the first half and trailed by ten at the break.

The Bruins opened up the second half with a little better focus, as they got stops when they forced the Utes into three consecutive contested jump shots. Unfortunately, the Bruins couldn't close the gap as they struggled themselves on offense. Utah got going in the half when Anderson missed a contested shot at the rim and the Utes converted on a three-on-two break. Jordan Adams is very poor in transition defense, as he often stands and watches (as he did on this play) before he tries to run back. Unfortunately, it's often closer to jogging than running and that was the case a few times in this game.

At one point, the Bruins trailed 43-31 and Anderson had 18 of the points. He was doing everything he could to keep UCLA in it, but it's obviously a huge problem when the offense becomes so one-dimensional. But Adams, Norman Powell and Bryce Alford were all struggling from the perimeter, and the Bruins had almost no low-post scoring plays, so it was up to Anderson to keep shooting.

For Utah, everything was coming very easy in the first ten minutes of the second half. The Bruins weren't pressuring the ball, either in zone or man, and the Utes looked extremely comfortable running their offense. The game was starting to look very similar to the Missouri and Duke games when UCLA didn't respond to second half adversity and ended up getting blown out. At the 11 minute mark, with UCLA trailing 56-40, I wrote in my notes "will they quit?"

To the Bruins credit, they didn't quit. They started getting a little more aggressive on defense and Zach LaVine began making plays all over the court. He had a couple steals, a few buckets, a nice assist to Parker for a lay-up and a big offensive rebound that led to an Anderson three-pointer. The Bruins went to a full court press, as well as trapping out of their half court zone, and the Utes didn't respond well at all to the pressure.

UCLA wasn't playing great defense, but at least they were finally playing with a little energy and they managed to get back in the game. In addition to Anderson and Levine's contributions, the Bruins finally started getting something from Adams, who had been ice cold all game. Adams had scored on a couple possessions and it looked like perhaps the Bruins would survive their early doldrums. However, Adams had turnovers on consecutive plays where he charged and then lost his dribble and Utah was able to get the lead back up to ten. Adams has obviously been one of UCLA's best offensive players over the last two seasons, but he's struggled lately. He looks a little chunky physically, but it also seems like the other Pac-12 teams are starting to learn how to defend him when he drives to the basket. Where previously he was constantly creating contact and drawing fouls, now he's driving with nowhere to go and often throwing up wild, contested shots. He's clearly been struggling the last few games and the Bruins will obviously need to get him going again if they're to do anything meaningful this season.

LaVine had a very good second half and, when he hit a three with 1:42 to go, the Bruins trailed 69-63. However, while LaVine's aggressive play was instrumental in getting the Bruins back in the game, he made a freshman mistake when he air-balled a bad shot with 1:23 to go in the game. Anderson was noticeably miffed and rightfully so. It was a bad decision by LaVine at that point in the game. The Bruins did manage to ultimately close the gap to four in the last minute, but an Anderson turnover on a drive to the basket ended the Bruins' slim hopes.

For the Bruins, other than Anderson and LaVine, nobody played well. Bryce Alford had a very poor game as his shot was off and he made numerous questionable decisions with the ball. He struggled badly at the defensive end as well, yet played a head-scratching 15 minutes in the first half while Adams and Powell played five and four minutes respectively. Adams had two fouls, but Powell had no foul trouble and it was puzzling to see him play so few minutes when Alford was clearly struggling on his first conference road trip. At this point in his career, Alford's best attribute is as a spot-up shooter. But if his shot isn't dropping, he's not doing enough in other areas to warrant so many minutes. He has trouble driving on high major athletes, yet continues to try to make plays off the dribble when there is nothing there. While you want a freshman to play with confidence, it needs to be warranted confidence. And right now, Alford is playing with unwarranted confidence.

The Bruin front court of David Wear, Travis Wear and Tony Parker combined for 13 points and eight rebounds, while Utah forward Jordan Loveridge had 17 and nine by himself. Needless to say, this wasn't a good game for the Bruin big men. They didn't get a whole lot of low post touches but, then again, none of them are consistent low-post scorers. The Wears offensive game is pretty much limited to pick and pop these days. Defensively, they are very consistent – almost always a step late on rotations. My enduring memory of the Wears days at UCLA will be of them closing out a second late on open jump shooters. It's uncanny how often that happens with them. Two days after playing his best game of the season at Colorado, Norman Powell had a forgettable game going 1-6 from the field and 0-3 from three-point range. Powell has been better this season at getting to the basket, but he's struggling from beyond the stripe and he probably shouldn't be settling for as many jumpers as he's been taking.

This was a disappointing loss for the Bruins, as they had seemingly been making progress at the defensive end of the court. They did out-rebound Utah 35-31, but that doesn't mean much when you have as many defensive breakdowns as the Bruins suffered. UCLA will need to get back on track quickly with Stanford and Cal coming to Pauley next weekend. The Cardinal have been up and down, but they have the talent to play with anyone in the league, while Cal is clearly the second best team in the league so far this year


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