The team known for its offense couldn’t win with its better half Saturday afternoon. UCLA needed a stop.
First, the Bruins needed to disrupt.
Trailing by a point in the final seconds, Utah inbounded the ball three times. Three times, UCLA fouled because the Bruins weren’t in the bonus and wouldn’t send the Utes to the free-throw line.
By the time Utah finally put the ball in the hands of Kyle Kuzma, its best player, the Bruins had shaved seven seconds off the clock, leaving only five seconds left. Kuzma pulled up for a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of UCLA forward TJ Leaf, giving Bruins guard Bryce Alford a frightening flashback to his team’s loss against Oregon on a similar shot in the final seconds.
“I’m like, oh my goodness, don’t go in, don’t go in,” Alford would recall later of his thoughts while watching from the bench.
It didn’t and the fourth-ranked Bruins prevailed over the Utes, 83-82, at the Huntsman Center to complete their first two-game road sweep in Pac-12 Conference play during UCLA Coach Steve Alford’s four seasons with the team.
“That’s growth,” Bruins guard Lonzo Ball said after making four of his career-high five steals in the second half to go with 17 points, eight assists, six rebounds and only one turnover. “We’ve been talking about it all year and we finally pulled it out with a stop to win the game.”
The Bruins (18-1 overall, 5-1 Pac-12) won only after rallying from a nine-point deficit over the final 16 minutes. It required the plucky play of Ball, who played all 40 minutes for the first time in his career, and the persistence of guard Aaron Holiday, who didn’t care that he missed his first five three-pointers because his sixth went in to give the Bruins an 81-80 lead with 1:52 left.
“Lonzo, you’re selfish!” a Utah fan yelled at Ball as he conducted a postgame interview. “You should have sat on the bench for a few minutes.”
The Utes (12-5, 3-2) still had a longshot chance to tie the score after Kuzma missed his jumper. UCLA’s Thomas Welsh grabbed the rebound and made two free throws after getting fouled to give the Bruins an 83-80 cushion with one second left. Utah’s Lorenzo Bonam grabbed a full-court inbounds pass and made a jumper at the buzzer, triggering an eruption from Utes fans who thought the shot had tied the score.
But Bonam’s shot wasn’t close to the three-point line and the Bruins emerged with perhaps their most impressive win of the season considering the circumstances.
“Definitely our gutsiest,” Bryce Alford said after scoring 15 points on six-for-12 shooting in a followup to his career-high, 37-point outburst two days earlier against Colorado.
Alford had gone scoreless in his previous two games on this court and had gone cold in the second half Saturday before Ball found him for a corner three-pointer while being fouled that put the Bruins ahead, 78-77, with 2 1/2 minutes left even after Alford missed the free throw.
Guard Sedrick Barefield then gave Utah its final lead when he made a three-pointer, a prelude to Holiday’s counter. The Utes lost despite shooting 54.5% and scoring 50 points in the paint because they were largely foiled late in the game by UCLA’s zone defense.
“That did change the tempo,” Steve Alford said, “and they got to shooting more jump shots.”
Foul trouble on fellow guards Holiday and Isaac Hamilton forced Ball to play the entire game, which proved fortuitous for the Bruins. Ball lurked in the backcourt midway through the second half before poking away an outlet pass for a steal that led to a two-handed dunk.
“Coming in, we knew what he was going to bring for us,” Holiday said, “and he did it for the full 40 minutes this game.”
Said Ball: “I usually play 38 minutes, so an extra two minutes is not really going to do too much to me.”
The same could be said for the salty Utah fans, who mocked Bryce Alford with chants of “Daddy’s boy!” and chanted “Airball!” every time Holiday touched the ball after missing the rim on a jumper in the first half.
“The ‘Daddy’s boy’ chant, I’ve heard since I was in high school,” Alford said, “so I’d like to hear some people come up with some new stuff.”
UCLA tightening its defense qualified as a fresh development for a team that knows that’s what it will take to persevere in even more meaningful games.
“It’s great to finally win,” Holiday said, “getting a stop.”