SALT LAKE CITY — For three quarters Sunday, the Utah women’s basketball team looked poised to pull off their second upset of a ranked team this season.
And then, in the fourth quarter, it slowly unraveled as Utah lost to the No. 15-ranked UCLA Bruins 69-63. The momentum began to shift in part because Utah’s players began to play tentatively, and in part because UCLA’s senior guard Nirra Fields, who finished with 24 points, including the last five, carried her team through the game’s final minutes.
Utah sophomore forward Emily Potter, who led Utah with 16 points and 13 rebounds, was visibly frustrated after the loss.
“We just played on our heels,” Potter said. “We didn’t find a way to win. The offense kind of stalled. We were flowing and … everything is clicking, Coach (Roberts) doesn’t have to call out the plays, we’re just running our motion offense and moving the ball and finding good shots. Then it kind of halted a bit and we were back on our heels.”
Utah outrebounded the Bruins 53-49, and they also had more assists 13-8. But the Bruins made their free throws – most by Fields - when it mattered most, and Utah missed not only field goals that it had been making, but also critical foul shots. After outscoring the Bruins in every quarter, Utah was outscored 26-12 in the final 10 minutes of the game.
“This is a game we’re going to regret losing,” said head coach Lynne Roberts. “It was right there for the taking. Give credit to UCLA staying mentally in it and tough.”
For three quarters, the Utes played great basketball.
“And then I thought we played a little bit not to lose there in the fourth quarter,” she said. “We got tentative; we weren’t being very disciplined with things.” Roberts said the key to playing fearlessly is finding a way not to worry about the scoreboard.
“You can’t worry about losing,” she said. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh, shoot, they just scored again. Oh, now we’re only up seven…Now we’re up four.’ …You’ve got to play like the game is going to midnight and you’re up and enjoying it. And then you have to do the things that got you there in the first place.”
Utah had two missed layups and four missed free throws in the game’s final minute. As the Utes finished 15 of 19 from the line, it appeared worry wormed its way into even the team’s toughest players' minds.
“Free-throw shooting, that’s an example of it,” Roberts said. “You could see the frustration settle in.”
Potter said she could feel the team’s offense sputtering in the game’s final quarter.
“You can kind of feel it,” she said, “and you don’t want to acknowledge it. You want to kind of get back into what you were doing. We missed some shots, and then it kind of built upon itself.”
For Utah, Malia Nawahine finished with 10 points and six rebounds while Tanaeya Boclair added 13 points and seven rebounds and Dani Rodriguez finished with 10 points and five assists.
UCLA had two other players in double figures — Kari Korver (cousin of former Jazzman Kyle Korver), who had 10 points and Monique Billings, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
This loss is Utah’s fourth in a row — three of those at home. The team takes on Colorado at the Huntsman Center Thursday before heading to Boulder to play Colorado on Sunday.
Roberts said she doesn’t care about streaks.
“Every time we put on a uniform, we want to win,” Roberts said. “But this season is not about outcome. This season is about continuing to improve and establishing our culture, and our culture is out-working you, that blue-collar, rebounding, team energy, bench energy, all of those things, and those things are happening. There is improvement game to game. So in terms of the style of play, getting up and down, that’s what this season is about. …But we are not, and it’s hard, this is not outcome driven. I could care less about a winning streak and a losing streak right now.”