For UCLA, the margins are as slim as floaters that don’t float quite enough.
They are as tiny as a mistimed ally-oop or a botched defense on an inbounds play.
Small plays, within the context of a season. But the Bruins’ sluggish Pac-12 Conference start meant these mini breakdowns may have torpedoed their NCAA tournament chances Thursday.
The mistakes halted a furious comeback against Utah, which defeated the Bruins, 75-73, at Pauley Pavilion.
“I think the guys obviously knew that, because of how we started the conference season, that this was a must-win,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “We couldn’t get it done.”
UCLA (14-12, 5-8 in the Pac-12) couldn’t erase a 14-point second-half deficit.
With less than five minutes to play, the Bruins finally woke up. They scored eight points in a row. Utah’s lead dwindled to two.
Then Aaron Holiday lobbed an ally-oop. Thomas Welsh was open but couldn’t handle the pass.
UCLA stopped the Utes again. Isaac Hamilton drove and lofted a floater toward the rim. Just short.
Then, with six seconds remaining, the Bruins down three points, UCLA’s defense broke down. Utah forward Kyle Kuzma escaped to catch a long inbounds pass for an easy dunk to seal the outcome.
Alford said this week that this team has struggled with pressure. If this game were earlier in the season, would UCLA have converted late?
“I don’t know,” Alford said.
With five games remaining, UCLA has no respite. It can hardly afford any more losses like Thursday’s.
“You’ve got to be able to handle pressure,” Alford said. “In the games that we’ve needed the most, we haven’t done that. And that’s kind of been the story of the season.”
Little separated the teams early. The score was 31-31 at halftime.
Utah (20-7, 9-5) embarked on an extended run early in the second half, when it made nine of its first 11 shots and Jakob Poeltl scored 11 of his 15 points. UCLA came alive late.
Other than that, the box score formed a close symmetry. The lead swung 15 times. Each team finished within two made field goals of the other. Within two three-pointers and two turnovers too. Each made four free throws. The largest discrepancy was on the boards, and even there Utah grabbed only four more rebounds than UCLA.
“Foul shots were about the same,” Alford said. “Board play was about the same. Assist-to-turnover was about the same. Shooting percentage was about the same. It was just their run lasted about 10 minutes, and our run lasted about six minutes.”
Hamilton led all scorers with 25 points. Guard Bryce Alford had a quiet night, scoring 11 points on four-for-eight shooting. Jordan Loveridge led Utah with 17 points.
Afterward, the near comeback only added to the frustration.
“We’ve been very inconsistent,” Bryce Alford said. “We go through stretches where I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country. Then we go through stretches where anybody can beat us.”
Said Hamilton: “I can’t explain. We are a good ballclub. We just have to come out and play with intensity.”
Hamilton and Alford said they knew that this was close to a must-win game. But, they agreed, they opened the second half without urgency.
“If I knew the answer to that, we’d fix it,” Bryce Alford said. “It’s something that, it’s really hard, and it’s really frustrating.”
At the final buzzer, Holiday drained a meaningless three-pointer. If UCLA had made one of its late chances, if it hadn’t allowed Kuzma to break free, the shot would’ve tied the score.
Instead, Holiday ran to the bench. On his way, he kicked the ball in frustration.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter: @zhelfand