ouglas C. Pizac-USA Today Sports

UCLA Basketball Beats Utah, 57-53: Behind The Box Score

Your 2012-13 UCLA Bruins look like they’re not going to be boring, competition be damned.

Up 12 to start the second half, UCLA looked like they were finally about to blow open a game in Pac-12 play and empty its bench midway through the period. For the first time since demolishing Long Beach State on December 18, it looked like these Bruins were about to get some much-needed rest early in the game while the youngsters, notably Tony Parker, got to get their feet wet. For a bit, it looked like UCLA would cruise.

Of course, while we like to internalize UCLA’s failings — or, at least, we should, since this is the greatest college hoops program in American history, after all — it’s not as if Utah can ever actually be a boring team. These Utes are pesky and have yet to lose a game by double-digits, with five of their six losses leading up to this game coming by three points or less. They did take Arizona to the wire and lost a heart-breaker, and they did take a 14-2 Arizona State team to overtime, and they damn near beat a 13-4 BYU team that looks poised for a top-25 ranking at some point this season.

So no, it wasn’t shocking that these Utes took UCLA to the wire, combined with the fact that UCLA can’t seem to close the door early on clearly-inferior teams, something that Utah most definitely is.

But the issue is that UCLA had chances to step on the Utes’ throats. Again, going up double-digits should be a death sentence for opposing squads, but instead, UCLA has made double-digit leads in the second-half almost a marker for the opposition to play even harder. It’s almost as if teams know UCLA is liable to crumble after getting a big lead, and it’s why these Bruins have yet to look impressive in a conference game this season.

Utah rallied after UCLA held a 12-point lead and the Bruins never fully responded. The Utes returned to the aggressive mentality on offense that earned them some easy buckets to open the game, attacking the basket at will. They penetrated, got into the heart of the defense, and found easy ways to finish around the rim with both Travis and David Wear lackadaisically defending the interior. That, combined with a few three-pointers from these Utes, damned UCLA’s chances of winning by double digits, a lead that was largely built by point-forward-turned-power-forward Kyle Anderson, who started the game off with 11 points. By the time the Utes pulled within two, the UCLA freshmen got their first glimpse of a real hostile environment, while the Jon Huntsman Center went bananas after a mighty rally from their Mighty Runnin’ Utes.

But Travis Wear — the troll that he is, which is now apparently his permanent role with this team — kept UCLA from drowning, fending off Utah’s flurry of energy which occasionally turned into transition buckets on the other end. After going 1-for-4 to start, with nearly all four shots being terrible decisions, Wear kept these Bruins from trailing, which the team never did.

Of course, something happened when this game got to two points. These Bruins were no longer fending off Utah as much as they could have; gassed, down the stretch, these Bruins weren’t defending the same; Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson weren’t able to even funnel penetration where they wanted it and the Wear twins — whichever one was in at the time, late in the game — along with Tony Parker, found a second wind and prevented easy lay-ups. That dribble-penetration, though, was accompanied by off-ball screens that allowed Utah to get open from downtown not once, but twice in two successive possessions. No hands were in the shooter’s face and Utah was free to take the lead.

In Arizona-esque fashion, though, Utah missed the shots and UCLA miraculously escaped the Jon Huntsman Center with a 3-0 Pac-12 record intact, thanks largely in part to a late Larry Drew II lay-up (the same Larry Drew II, mind you, that UCLA fans much like myself have ridden incredibly hard, and a point guard that has become increasingly difficult to hate at this point).

These Bruins won ugly, and when the offense stagnated in the second half, these Utes nearly pulled off their first real upset of the 2012-13 season. Sure, it was UCLA’s first road game of the year — a team that is laden with freshmen — but it wasn’t as if this squad didn’t build itself a double-digit cushion to start.

That’s not to discount this win. At the same time, though, this wasn’t a “good win” by UCLA standards. It was a win, but it wasn’t one that’s worth touting, not with the way UCLA was shooting after starting hot, and not after the way Utah blew a few open chances down the stretch to earn themselves a signature victory.

No, an impressive win will constitute a UCLA win over Colorado in Boulder on Saturday; that, my dear friends, is a good win, much like the Missouri game was a “good win.”

A win there, and it’s likely UCLA earns itself a spot atop the Pac-12 as the new hegemon while it bullies itself back into the top-25. A loss, and this team will earn third place in the conference, good enough by our standards to be considered “middling.”

Time will tell, won’t it?

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Tags: Basketball UCLA Bruins Utah Utes

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