UCLA knew before tip-off that it would be without its top big man because of a suspension and had no chance for a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Conference tournament based on results earlier in the day.
Somehow, things got worse.
The Bruins trailed by double figures less than four minutes into the game and never recovered Saturday at the Huntsman Center in a 92-81 loss to Utah that was a fitting end to a horrendous regular season.
UCLA announced before the game that freshman center Moses Brown would not play because of an unspecified violation of the student-conduct code that also imperiled his status for the Pac-12 tournament.
There more disappointment to come later in the day when Oregon upset conference-leading Washington, dropping the Bruins (16-15 overall, 9-9 Pac-12) into seventh place and a Pac-12 tournament opener against Stanford on Wednesday evening at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“Our spirits aren’t broken or anything like that,” said UCLA guard David Singleton, whose 13 points off the bench weren’t nearly enough to help the Bruins overcome a 27-point deficit in the first half. “We’re moving on to the next game just like we always do.”
There may be only one game left for the Bruins, who were picked to finish second in the conference but lost a season’s worth of games by late December and then their coach to a midseason dismissal.
They rebounded to win their first three games under interim coach Murry Bartow before their warts reappeared on the way to their worst conference finish since they were 10th during the 2015-16 season. The Bruins struggled to take care of the ball or defend the three-point line, problems that reemerged Saturday as the Utes (17-13, 11-7) made 11 shots from beyond the arc in the first half on the way to their massive lead.
“We just couldn’t find a stop to it,” said UCLA forward Jalen Hill, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds in Brown’s absence. “You can’t just give up a 20-point lead and expect to come back really easy.”
UCLA switched from its varying zones to man-to-man defense in the second half and made one final push. Singleton’s three-pointer with less than seven minutes to play shaved the deficit to eight points, but the Bruins would not have a rally in them to match the Utes’ comeback from 22 points down last month.
Utah unintentionally rubbed things in even before tipoff when guard Parker Van Dyke’s three-point buzzer-beater from the teams’ first meeting was shown as part of the video montage on the scoreboard.
Van Dyke once again delivered the knockout blow, pulling up for a three-pointer that extended the Utes’ lead to 12 with 1:40 left.
The Utes opened the game by making three three-pointers while building a 16-6 lead that prompted Bartow to call a timeout. He could do nothing to stop the onslaught as Utah finished with 17 three-pointers.
“Threes, man,” Hill said when asked what went wrong.
UCLA sustained its habit of losing big, dropping its 13th game this season by at least 11 points. Utah’s Sedrick Barefield was a big part of the latest blowout, notching 29 points.
Brown’s violation occurred before this two-game trip, an athletic department spokesman said, but was not known by the coaching staff until after the Bruins’ game against Colorado on Thursday.
The violation was unrelated to a walking boot Brown has been wearing recently to help protect nagging Achilles’ tendon soreness, the spokesman said. Brown’s status for the Pac-12 Conference tournament next week was undetermined.
“I’ll just let the statement that we made speak for itself and we’ll re-evaluate things when we get back to L.A.,” Bartow said.
Brown sat on the bench holding a basketball about an hour before the game, the hood of his blue sweatshirt pulled over the back of his head. He rose from the bench to cheer in the first half when Hill dunked.
Brown had also been held out of all but the final five seconds of UCLA’s game against Utah in February at Pauley Pavilion for being late to a shoot-around.
UCLA was without its top big man for the game against Utah and knew it had no chance for a first-round by in the Pac-12 tournament. Then things got worse.