SALT LAKE CITY — After four straight games, Utah finally got sophomore guard Rylan Jones back in the lineup after a shoulder injury suffered during a practice.
The return was a welcomed addition to the team, but it wasn’t enough to overtake a UCLA team looking to solidify a bid for the NCAA Tournament next month. The visiting UCLA Bruins controlled an 8-point halftime lead before blowing it open in the second half to defeat Utah 76-61.
UCLA (17-5, 13-3) opened up the second half with the hot hand and went on a 12-2 run before eventually pushing its lead up to 19 points by the first media timeout. From there, the Bruins had no problem keeping a double-digit lead against the home team, eventually building up its lead to as much as 21 on 55% shooting in the game.
UCLA had four players in double figures Thursday and was led in scoring by Jules Bernard, who had 19 points, four rebounds and three assists. Johnny Juzang added 18 points and eight rebounds, Cody Riley had 15 points and five rebounds, and Jaime Jaquez had 11 points in the win.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to impose our will defensively and set the tone defensively,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We’re not an outscoring-minded team, and I thought we lost that edge a little bit and then they stepped up and players made some plays. They’ve got a lot of firepower on that team, and the margin for error is very slim.”
Krystkowiak said he was pleased in his team’s first 12 minutes and the last 12 minutes of the game, but it was that middle 16 minutes that did all the damage and allowed the Bruins to pull away. He said the “point of attack defense” lacked at the 3-point line and allowed the Bruins some easy buckets — the Bruins were 11-of-19 from deep.
Utah (9-11, 6-10) led by 4 points early before the Bruins evened the score. The two teams traded baskets for much of the half until UCLA jumped to an 8-point halftime lead amid a 4-minute scoring drought to close out the half for Utah.
The next 8 minutes of play to open up the half is where UCLA couldn’t miss and Utah’s defense gave the Bruins every open look it wanted. At one point in the second half, UCLA was shooting 76% from the field, including a perfect clip from behind the arc.
“We did some things that were positive: low turnover game, battled even on the glass, and shared the ball,” Krystkowiak said. “We just need to make more shots and I thought we had a little bit of give-up in us, which can’t be part of our identity.
“It gets a little hard,” he added, speaking about being down by a lot. “It puts an awful lot of pressure on your offense when you come down and when you’re taking the ball out of the net all the time, but I thought that we just put our guard down and we’ve got to be dialed.”
Utah’s Branden Carlson, who scored the team’s first two buckets amid its early 6-2 jump on UCLA, finished the first half with 13 points in another strong performance from the sophomore center who continues to improves as the season has progressed. He added three rebounds and two blocks, and was a benefactor of Utah’s 10 first-half assists on 12 made baskets.
Carlson led Utah with 17 points, six rebounds and four blocks in the loss. The Bruins held Utah’s top scorer Timmy Allen to only 2 points in the first half on 1-of-7 shooting from the field. He finished with only 8 points, two rebounds and two assists.
Utah failed to shoot a free throw in the game Thursday, which is the first time in program history it did not go to the foul line during a game. UCLA only shot four free throws in the game.
The Utes were once again without forward Mikael Jantunen following a trip to Europe to play with the Finnish National Team. Krystkowiak said he hopes to have him back with the team Saturday for USC, but said they’re still waiting for him to be cleared.