Try as he might, Aaron Holiday can’t win games on his own.
The UCLA point guard is usually his team’s leading scorer and playmaker, but there are also times when it seems he’s the only productive Bruin on the court.
That was the case for much of the second half Thursday night against Utah. Holiday sparked a comeback that never became fully ablaze because he didn’t receive enough assistance.
Holiday scored 16 of his team’s 38 points over the final 20 minutes of UCLA’s 84-78 loss on the road. Center Thomas Welsh added eight points in the second half and was the only other Bruin to score more than five points during that stretch.
“It’s not up to him all the time,” UCLA forward Kris Wilkes, who finished with eight points, said of Holiday. “It’s up to us too to step up.”
Holiday almost brought the Bruins all the way back from the 14-point deficit they faced early in the second half. He made two floaters, a three-pointer and split two defenders for a driving layup that shaved UCLA’s deficit to 62-59. He later missed a step-back three-pointer that could have tied the score, but his team’s failure to come all the way back could not be pinned on him.
Guard Prince Ali sapped some of the Bruins’ momentum with two charging fouls in a span of 45 seconds. The first prompted coach Steve Alford to bury his face in his hands and bend over in disgust.
“They hurt a lot,” Alford said. “You’ve got to give [the Utes] credit. They got in the way and they got the good calls by getting in the way.”
There were other sore spots for UCLA. Bruins guard Jaylen Hands started a fast break with a steal but turned the ball over two seconds later when he lost his dribble. Forward GG Goloman squelched any last-ditch comeback hopes in the final minute when he let the ball slip out of his hands for a turnover.
Holiday finished with a game-high 23 points to go with seven assists and only two turnovers while playing all 40 minutes for the sixth time this season. Could he use some help late in close games?
“Well, he’s going to be a finisher, obviously,” Alford said, “and we had a couple of key turnovers in the last three minutes instead of getting shots up.”
Alford seemed to suggest that Holiday did deserve some relief … from the officials.
“Aaron goes 40 minutes, [takes] two free throws, that’s a tough one for us,” Alford said, “especially how much he’s got the ball and how he draws a lot of attention and, in my opinion, draws a lot of contact. It was a tough one.”
Asked about the level of contact he endured, Holiday said, “I can’t worry about that. I’m just playing.”
The Bruins, 19-9 overall and 10-6 in the Pac-12 Conference, might not have much more of a shelf life if they can’t find more support for their best player. The loss to Utah dropped UCLA into a tie with the Utes for third place in the conference standings while weakening the Bruins’ standing for the NCAA tournament.
UCLA needs to win road games against Colorado on Sunday and USC on March 3 to lower its anxiety level about its postseason chances heading into the Pac-12 tournament.
As difficult as winning can be for the Bruins with Holiday playing every second, there was a moment late Thursday night when one had to wonder how things might go for UCLA without its top player. As he departed the Huntsman Center, Holiday walked with a slight limp, a bag of ice wrapped around his left knee.
“I’m good,” Holiday said when asked if he was OK.
The Bruins’ hopes fully depend on it.