SALT LAKE CITY — On a night when there was a whiteout outside and a blackout inside, the Utah Utes left the Huntsman Center feeling a little bit blue — dropping a hard-fought 57-53 decision to UCLA.
Before giving up a late layup, the Utes had five shots to tie or take the lead in the final 2:25. Misses included a jumper, a tip-in and a trio of 3-point shots.
“Coach put us in a right position, gave us the play and the game plan. We got open. We just didn’t hit shots down the stretch,” said Utah senior Cedric Martin. “We played well. We played well on defense and offense. It just came down to hitting those last couple of shots.”
Although the missed opportunities left the Utes disappointed, they’re not discouraged.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was pleased with how his team kept the Bruins off the glass and out of transition in the second half. The Utes used both to climb back into contention after trailing by as many as 13 points earlier in the game.
As for the missed shots down the stretch, Krystkowiak said they’ve just “got to exorcise some of these hoop demons that we have right now with a lid on the basket.”
And that, he added, is something that they’ll make happen.
The outcome dropped the Utes to 8-7 overall and 0-3 in Pac-12 play. Their losses have come by a combined total of just 26 points, including a margin of eight in conference games.
Martin acknowledged that coming close is getting old.
“I’m tired of the moral victories, but we’re still learning from our mistakes. We’re getting better and better every day on defense,” Martin said. “At least we’re showing that we’re capable of keeping up with these teams and they’re not coming in our house and blowing us out of the water. So we just need to close the game. We need to seal the deal now.”
Krystkowiak is also growing weary of talking about moral victories or “woulda, coulda, shoulda” scenarios. It’s all irrelevant, he said, because nothing can be done about outcomes that are already in the books.
“We’ve got a strong enough spirit that our guys aren’t going to get broken because we’re not winning games,” Krystkowiak said, while noting that the Utes are no longer going to gunfights with knives. They have chances to win games now and it’s time for guys to step up in that regard.
Martin led the Utes with 12 points, while Jason Washburn and Jordan Loveridge each finished with 11. Jordan Adams, Larry Drew II and Travis Wear scored 12 apiece for the Bruins (13-3, 3-0).
“We’re just really glad to escape this place,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland.
UCLA led 34-23 at the end of a first half featuring just one lead change and a single tie. Anderson led a balanced attack with 11 points and seven rebounds. Eight players scored and seven grabbed rebounds for the Bruins, who turned the ball over just once in the opening 20 minutes.
Utah’s only lead of the game came at 2-0 on a layup by Jarred DuBois. UCLA responded with five straight points from Anderson to pull ahead. The Bruins remained in front — by as many as four on two occasions — before the Utes rallied to even the score at 18-18 on a 3-pointer by DuBois with 8:30 remaining in the half.
Martin, in his first start since suffering a groin injury against BYU on Dec. 8, fueled the comeback with seven points. DuBois and Washburn added five and four, respectively. Aaron Dotson had Utah’s other basket.
UCLA retaliated with a 9-1 run, however, to regain control of the game. Jordan Adams paced the three-and-a-half minute ourburst with two field goals and a 3-pointer. The Bruins added a 7-0 stretch later in the half to build a 34-21 advantage.
Utah ended a scoring drought of more than four minutes by capping things off with a basket by Washburn with 25 seconds to go in the opening half.
“I think it was two different halves for us,” Krystkowiak said. “The first I wasn’t pleased with our energy coming out of the locker room. I thought the Bruins played a heckuva lot harder than us on our home court.”
That changed, however, after Krystkowiak got on the team in the locker room at halftime.
“He told us what we needed to do to win the game,” Martin said. “I think we won the second half, but because of the first half that put us back.”
The Utes conclude their first Pac-12 homestand of the season Saturday against USC. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m.
“We got some good looks at the basket and I’m confident that those shots are going to go down at some point,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve just got to keep the faith and get ready for USC."
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