March is quickly approaching for UCLA. The madness may have already begun.
Four months and 28 games into the season, the Bruins can’t always count on a full game’s worth of effort defensively.
Repeated failures to contest shots or get in the way of penetrating guards more than offset a spirited comeback during UCLA’s 84-78 setback against Utah on Thursday night at the Huntsman Center. The lack of fight defensively also left Bruins coach Steve Alford at a loss for an explanation.
“Oh, I have no idea,” Alford said with an uneasy chuckle after being asked what he attributed a lackluster defensive stretch to. “They were hot, they shot 60-something percent in the first half, so you’ve got to give them credit.”
Alford went on to acknowledge that sustained effort was a big part of the problem, an ongoing dilemma for the Bruins (19-9 overall, 10-6 Pac-12 Conference) after they fell into a tie for third place in the conference standings with the Utes (18-9, 10-6).
“Well, that’s what’s keeping us from going over the top,” said Alford, whose team allowed Utah to shoot 52.7% while stretching its win streak to five games. “What are we, 19-9 and 10-6? We’ve had a very solid year, it’s been very, very good, but to take that next step we’ve got to be able to defend for 40 minutes.”
Center Thomas Welsh paused for three uncomfortable seconds when a reporter relayed Alford’s concerns.
“That’s pretty tough because effort is one thing you can always control,” Welsh said. “It’s one of those areas where, to give yourself a chance, you have to give 100% effort every possession, every moment, every game and yeah, it’s not good for coach to be saying that, of course, but that’s just on us as players.”
The Bruins played well to start the game and over the final 16 minutes, nearly erasing a 14-point deficit. It was the middle stretch that proved decisive. UCLA tried a variety of defenses in the first half, mixing some zone and half-court traps with man-to-man. Nothing worked. Utah made 64.3% of its shots and seven of 13 three-pointers (53.8%) on the way to a 47-40 halftime lead. Many of the long-range shots were open as the result of zippy ball movement against late-closing Bruins defenders.
“Our defense as a whole, it got pretty bad there,” UCLA forward Kris Wilkes said. “We started off, our offense was compensating for our defense, but as it went on we started missing shots on offense and we didn’t play defense.”
In what felt like a karmic twist, UCLA actually played superb defense on the game’s defining sequence.
Trailing by three points and needing a stop in the final minute, UCLA defended a possession tightly, preventing any openings. With three seconds left on the shot clock, Wilkes came around a screen to contest Utes guard Parker Van Dyke dribbling several feet beyond the three-point line.
Van Dyke rose for an off-balance three-pointer. Wilkes put a hand in his face. The high-arcing shot went through the net and gave the Utes a six-point lead with 41 seconds left, effectively sinking the Bruins.
“It was a crazy shot, but I think I could have stopped it,” Wilkes said. “I mean, I’m [6 feet 8], he’s like, what, 6-4? I think I could have blocked it or at least got a better contest.”
Wilkes’ contest was the least of UCLA’s defensive worries. They were so bad that they wasted another splendid game from point guard Aaron Holiday, who sparked the Bruins’ comeback by scoring 16 of his 23 points in the second half.
The Bruins failed to do much of anything to stop Van Dyke, who finished with 18 points, or Utah center David Collette, who returned from a brief injury absence to score 21 points .
The Bruins have at least three games left in their season; getting to a fourth might be contingent on fixing their defense. What will it take?
“I don’t know,” Holiday said. “We’ve just got to do it, pretty much. It’s that simple. We’ve just got to do it.”
Sunday at Colorado, 1 p.m. PST, Coors Events Center, ESPNU — After a rare two-day break between weekend games, the Bruins will try to avenge their most galling home loss of the season, a 68-59 setback against the Buffaloes in which they came out flat and never recovered.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch