With their backs against the wall and desperately in need of a win on Thursday to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, the Bruins flopped, losing to Utah 75-73 thanks in large part to a stretch in the second half that saw the game go from a 31-31 tie at halftime to a 57-43 lead for Utah within a span of nine minutes.
If there's some solace for UCLA fans, it's that we are fast approaching the end game for this long, disappointing UCLA basketball season.
That second half run was fueled in large part by UCLA's inability to match the intensity and aggression of Jakob Poeltl on the interior. Poeltl had a tough first half, but he came out in the second half looking to make a statement, and he did just that, scoring eight points in the first eight minutes of the half while also crashing the glass hard. Thomas Welsh was unable to summon the same kind of intensity until later in the half, while Tony Parker had his first sleep-walking game since the lineup switch that forced him to the bench.
It didn't help that during that run UCLA's shot selection, which had been abysmal all night, was arguably at its worst. Way too many times, a UCLA guard would elect not to pass the ball and instead take a jumper off of his own dribble. There was very little ball movement all game, and all of the guards -- Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Prince Ali -- were guilty of taking shots outside the rhythm of the offense. There were also plenty of unforced errors during that stretch that led to easy runouts for Utah.
It was a very sloppy start to the second half, and the fact that UCLA is still capable of playing with such sloppiness at this late, desperate stage of the season is proof enough that the Bruins aren't an NCAA Tournament-worthy team.
The first half was actually a pretty good overall half for the Bruins, too -- it's a shame it all got squandered. Jonah Bolden was the clear story of that first half, as he affected the game in several different ways. Offensively, he has never looked more comfortable, knocking down in-rhythm mid-range jumpers and also facilitating well from the high post. Probably his biggest impact, though, was on the defensive end, where he was a big part of the reason Poeltl struggled in the first half. Bolden's length bothers everyone, even 7-footers. Bolden didn't make much of an impact in the second half, and was responsible for some of the defensive breakdowns during that ten-minute stretch, but the last three games have given proof enough that the future is bright for him.
Ali also had a nice first half, so the thing we were hoping for from the beginning of the season -- that Bolden and Ali might emerge as impact players -- has started to happen over the last few games. He had two assists, a made three, and looked under control throughout. He knocked in another three in the second half, and just looks like a different, much more comfortable player than even a few games ago.
At the same time, though, Holiday, who helped carry the team for stretches this season, has hit a pretty significant slump of late. He's just very obviously pressing on the offensive end, and doesn't look nearly as decisive or confident as he did a month ago. He had 10 points on 4 of 11 shooting, but several of those shots were out of the flow of the offense, including one of the made threes.
Hamilton wasn't quite as efficient offensively as he has been, and he also allowed Jordan Loveridge to shoot quite a few wide open threes on defense. He scored 25, and he was still good offensively, but this wasn't one of his better defensive performances this year.
Parker played a really poor game. He was not a factor on offense, and didn't seem particuarly interested in being one, as he was successfully fronted by Brekkott Chapman, who probably gives up 60 pounds to Parker, at various points in the game. Defensively, he had a few breakdowns in the second half that led to buckets, and didn't seem particularly engaged. Steve Alford seemed frustrated with Parker in particular in the post-game press conference. Welsh was a little bit better, but was just too soft to start the second half, which helped allow Poeltl to go off. Later in the game, he played better, especially during that UCLA run in the last six minutes, and he had a nice defensive stand against Poeltl that forced the big man out of bounds.
The defensive effort was overall pretty good in the first half, abysmal for the first ten minutes of the second half, and then pretty good again over the final six minutes or so. This was actually a new kind of performance for this team this year -- typically, if they have a bad effort/good effort game, the script is flipped a bit, with the bad effort coming in the first half and the good effort coming in the second half. Instead, it was almost as if the Bruins gave a really good effort in the first half, saw that even with that good effort they were still tied with Utah at the half, and subsequently wilted.
The last minute of the game was a little bit weird. With 56 seconds to go coming out of a timeout, UCLA opted for a weird middle ground of an offensive possession, draining 13 seconds of the clock en route to a poor shot from Hamilton that was rebounded by Utah. In that situation, you probably either want to run your full offense and try to get a really good look, or you want to take an even quicker shot to get a 2-for-1. Then with about 40 seconds to go, with Utah having the ball and UCLA still having a foul to give, the Bruins elected to allow Utah to run offense rather than immediately fouling. At that point in the game, it made zero sense not to foul -- it would have changed nothing about the ensuing possession, and it would have made it easier to extend the game if Utah scored on the possession. So that was probably poor game management.
UCLA is now in the position where it faces must-win games in each of its last five games. If UCLA loses even one, it's going to be very difficult to secure an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. If UCLA wins out, though, sweeping through the last five games, the Bruins' RPI should be good enough for UCLA to squeak into the Tournament.
At this point, though, it's really not important. When we were looking at this season, as we said near the beginning, we would be assessing it on whether the coaching staff could get the team to play with consistent effort and focus -- because we wanted to see some real framework laid down for what could be, or could have been, a big year next season. With just five games remaining in the regular season, there's enough data at this point to say, with certainty, that this season has been a failure in that regard. This team has been capable of playing with the energy and effort to take down teams like Kentucky and Arizona, and it has also shown itself capable of playing with the lethargy and laziness to get swept by Washington and lose to bad teams like Wake Forest. That level of oscillation in effort, focus, and energy is the mark of a team that is rudderless and leaderless.
With enough talent on the team next year to reasonably challenge for a Final Four, we were hoping to see a team and a program that exhibited far greater leadership and maturity than what we've seen this year. It hasn't happened, and given that we haven't seen this team play hard for more than a three-game stretch, it's hard to project next year's team, with similar leadership, doing anything different.