UCLA Cruises Past Utah

UCLA started off slowly again, but turned it on in the second half to win relatively easily over the Utes, which puts the Bruins one game behind Arizona in the Pac-12...

UCLA followed a familiar script in defeating Utah, 80-66, Saturday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion, as they played well enough to win comfortably against a disciplined, but not especially talented, Utah team.

As has been the case for most of the conference games, the Bruins' focus and intensity were inconsistent. They would have a couple good possessions or defensive sequences, followed by a breakdown or lost assignment. The clear difference in this game was the fact that UCLA had the two best players on the floor in Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. Anderson has been terrific most of the season, but Adams had been in a funk lately and it was a good sign to see him break out with a very impressive performance.

The Bruins weren't especially sharp in the first half, especially defensively, and the Utes patiently ran their offense for good opportunities on most trips down the court. The Bruins were fortunate that Utah missed several wide open lay-ups. On offense, the Bruins had good ball movement early on and Adams was clearly into the game. He played with much more energy than he had been lately, keeping balls alive for offensive rebounds, diving on the floor to gain possession and jumping the passing lane for a steal leading to a lay-up.

Despite giving up a couple early wide open threes, the Bruins were playing fairly well, and leading 13-9 when Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford came into the game. LaVine continued to struggle at the offensive end, missing a couple jump shots as well as a few contested drives at the rim. He's obviously lost a little confidence in his jump shot in the last few weeks, but it's good to see him trying to get to the rim. As we saw earlier in the year, he's a very talented player capable of making NBA-level plays. Hopefully, he will continue to be aggressive and not settle for jump shots. The good news is that his defense is considerably better than it was earlier in the year. He's using his length and athleticism to better effect and he was one of a couple Bruins that slowed down Delon Wright.

Bryce Alford started off the half well as he quickly buried a three from the corner. After that shot, though, things went a bit south quickly. Utah's Brandon Taylor was way too quick for Alford and he repeatedly got free for wide open shots or took Alford off the dribble and caused the defense to collapse. Utah typically runs their offense through Delon Wright, but the Utes smartly recognized the mismatch and put the ball in the hands of Taylor.

Norman Powell was the guy primarily responsible for defending Wright, the Utes' best player, and he did a good job of slowing down Wright. He also got solid help from his teammates, though, as the Bruin big men were clearly conscious of trying to help out on Wright. The only points Wright got in the first half came on a tip dunk late in the half. He did manage to get loose late in the game, but much of it was semi-garbage time when the Bruins had the game in hand. Powell also had another very solid game at the offensive end. He's become much better at reading when to attack the basket and he appears to be more confident with his jump shots in the last few weeks. Despite the terrific play of Adams in this game, Powell has clearly been UCLA's second best player over the last month or so.

As we mentioned in the last review, Coach Alford has done a very good job of calling set plays out of time-outs this year. The Bruins ran another nice play out of a timeout when they hit Jordan Adams for a backdoor lay-up. In general, Coach Alford has done a good job of taking advantage of not only mismatches defensively, but also getting shots for the guy with the hot hand. In this game, that guy was definitely Adams and he had several wide open catch-and-shoot opportunities running off baseline screens. Despite Adams' hot shooting, though, the Bruins only led 33-31 at the half. The defensive lapses, as well as some untimely turnovers, allowed Utah to stay in the game to that point.

The second half, though, was a different story. The Bruin defense was noticeably more energetic to start the half. On consecutive plays, David Wear first took a charge on Wright and then did a great job helping on Wright to force another turnover. The Bruins held Utah scoreless for the first 5:30 of the half and managed to open up a 45-31 lead. For all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame. Utah runs a methodical offense and they don't have a lot of scorers. Playing at home, they might have been able to make up that kind of deficit, but they don't have the necessary firepower to make that kind of comeback on the road.

The last 14 minutes of the game, the Bruins played pretty much the way they did in the first half. Jordan Adams got even hotter, scoring seven consecutive points in one stretch, and Kyle Anderson knocked down a few effortless mid-range jumpers. But you could see the Bruins revert back to the habit of losing focus on defense a few times, giving up a couple easy transition baskets and not always taking care of the ball.

However, when Adams and Anderson play as well they did -- especially when they're at home and the shots are more likely to drop – the Bruins only need a short stretch of sustained intensity and focus to beat a mediocre team. Granted, holding a team scoreless for five and half minutes is a terrific accomplishment. But it would be nice to see the Bruins put together a couple runs like that in a game and blow out an opponent, rather than let them hang around and keep the game somewhat competitive. Of course, UCLA had a lot of those blowout wins earlier in the season, but Utah is obviously on a different level than Sacramento State.

One game after playing very well against Colorado, Travis Wear had another solid game, although his minutes were limited due to foul trouble. Wear has given the Bruins a little bit more of an inside presence lately and he had a nice stretch late in the game. On consecutive plays, he grabbed an offensive rebound for a put-back, and then blocked a shot which led to a Tony Parker dunk. Wear missed a lot of time early in the season due to his appendectomy and he's rarely looked like the player we saw late in the season last year. Hopefully, the signs he's showing lately will lead to more sustained good play from him.

Although the Bruins didn't show any real progress in the areas of intensity and focus in their wins over Colorado and Utah, they did win the games and put themselves in position to contend for the Pac-12 title. Arizona is obviously very vulnerable now with the loss of Brandon Ashley and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Wildcats drop a couple more games. Colorado lost a potential conference POY candidate in Spencer Dinwiddie to an ACL injury early in the year and that effectively ended any chance they had of competing in the league. Oregon started out the season well, but fell apart when the conference games began and they're no longer a threat. All of which means UCLA is sitting in really good shape right now as they head to the Bay Area for the biggest weekend of the year. Cal and Stanford are both relatively solid teams, but UCLA has been better than each of them over the course of the season. The Bruins have shown tantalizing moments this season when they've played with focus, energy and purpose. They're unlikely to play that way for 40 minutes at Cal or Stanford. But it won't take 40 minutes. If they can just string together a few stretches like they did to open the second half against Utah, the Bruins will likely be in very good shape.

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