The Runnin Utes won their third straight game on Thursday night with a 75-73 win over the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion that should clinch an NCAA tournament bid, and helped them keep pace for the Pac 12 regular season crown.
After a sluggish first half that saw the Utes tied despite not playing very well, they came out cooking in the second half with a 21-9 run that gave them a lead they never relinquished. The nail in the coffin came when Brandon Taylor's late 3 pointer held off a wild UCLA rally and pushed the Utes to the 20 win total for the season. A strong frontcourt performance from Utah was again led by Jakob Poeltl with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Kyle Kuzma went for 13 and 9, with Jordan Loveridge continuing his hot play of late with 17 points. The defensive rebounding efficiency in holding the Bruins to only 7 offensive rebounds, while dominating the offensive paint, particularly in the second half with layups and dunks.
The bad? Another round of late game miscues that allowed a team with a double digit deficit to crawl back into it and make thing much tighter than Larry Krystkowiak's crew would have like. After taking a 67-55 lead with 5:49 to play, Utah's next six possessions looked like this: Kuzma turnover, Loveridge missed 3, Taylor missed 3, Taylor missed 3, Loveridge made 3, Taylor missed 3. That's five attempted 3 pointers with only one make that allowed the Bruins to crawl back to within 4. They were clock killing possesions that turned into difficult shots with resulted in long rebounds and allowed the Bruins to get up the court quickly attempting to score.
We've seen this model from the Utes too often in late game situations where they try to run the clock out and force a bad shot instead of going to their bread and butter that worked the entire second half by feeding Jakob Poeltl in the post and letting him facilitate from there. Until Utah adopts a different and more aggressie approach when holding a lead later in the game, they're going to struggle with situations like this and allow opponents to get back into games. This may have ultimately worked against UCLA, but when Arizona and Oregon are on the other side of the court, Utah may not be so lucky.
So while it wasn't the Utes best performance of the season, they grabbed a resume padding win that helps them keep pace in the conference and helps maintain the long-term hopes of landing a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Considering where this team was 5-6 weeks ago and with the upcoming schedule, that's a pretty impressive feat.