LOS ANGELES — The Runnin’ Utes took on the No. 7 college basketball team in the country without their best player Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
As expected, the results weren’t pretty for the visitors.
It took awhile, but Pac-12-leading UCLA took advantage of the absence of Utah senior center Branden Carlson and rolled to a 68-49 victory in front of an announced crowd of 11,771 at the venue John Wooden made famous to remain atop the league standings. Tied with the deep and talented Bruins in the Pac-12 standings a week ago, Utah dropped to 5-2 in league play, 12-6 overall, and will start preparing for Saturday’s game at USC in hopes that Carlson, out with what a Utah basketball spokesperson called a non-COVID illness, can give it a go.
“Branden (Carlson) really wanted to play tonight. And he tried to give it a go in warmups and that whole deal, and it just wasn’t meant to be. It is on us to have enough guys to fill in. Obviously he is an all league guy, so that hurts. We knew it was going to be tough with him. It made it a lot harder without him.” — Utah coach Craig Smith.
“Hopefully we get him back, but certainly not counting on it,” Utah coach Craig Smith said, noting that he was “out for the count for about 24 hours a week ago” with a similar stomach flu, but others have been down for three or four days.
The Utes knew they would have to play almost perfectly as 12-point underdogs against a UCLA team that had won 30 straight games at Pauley with a crowd in the building in Westwood, even with the 7-foot Carlson in the lineup.
Without their leading scorer, they were toast.
The big guy’s absence was especially felt at the rim, as UCLA outscored Utah 38-16 in the paint and on the defensive glass. The Bruins won the rebounding battle 40-26, and converted 14 offensive rebounds into 21 second-chance points.
“The No. 1 key to the game was take care of the ball. The No. 2 key to the game was rebound,” Smith said. “They are an elite rebounding team and they missed 31 shots for the game, and they get 14 offensive rebounds. So, that is not good when you are on the other end of it.
“But credit to them. They are a high-level team. They are very, very good, and we have to get better because that is where we want to go.”
Thursday, it felt like the Runnin’ Utes, who lost their second-straight Pac-12 game after a 5-0 start in league play, are a lot further behind than they would like to acknowledge.
“Branden is a great player. Obviously, we missed him,” said Utah point guard Rollie Worster, who led the Utes with 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting. “But we are a team that has that ‘next man up’ mentality and that is what we expect from everybody. So I will leave it at that, I guess.”
Smith said he learned the Utes wouldn’t have Carlson for the long-awaited showdown — they have now lost six straight to UCLA since Parker Van Dyke’s buzzer-beater here in 2019 — about two hours before tipoff when the team got on the bus at their hotel.
In Carlson’s absence, the Utes went to a smaller lineup, with guard Lazar Stefanovic getting the starting nod over freshman Keba Keita. At first, it appeared to be working, as UCLA fell behind 4-0 and didn’t score until 15:36 remaining in the first half.
Utah’s nationally-ranked defense — No. 4 in defensive field goal percentage — was giving the Bruins some issues. Star Jaime Jaquez didn’t score in the first half, going 0 for 4. It didn’t last, as freshman Adem Bona (15 points on 7 of 9 shooting) got going inside and proved to be unstoppable.
Guard Tyler Campbell led all scorers with 17 points, and also had seven assists.
“We thought about (starting Keita), obviously. It was tight between the two. We just went with a veteran guy, and a ball-handler.” Smith said. “We just felt like you get on the road in this kind of thing, taking care of the ball is going to be, we felt like, the most important thing.
“So we went with the guard lineup and we still turned it over,” he continued, lamenting 16 giveaways. “We wanted decision-makers out there.”
Utah was right there with 11 minutes remaining in the first half when Stefanovic hit a jumper to get the Utes within a point (11-10), but Utah went the next five possessions with turnovers six, seven and eight and missed a pair of ill-advised 3-pointers. UCLA went on a Campbell-fueled 7-0 run and the rout was on.
Smith said not having his best player available “is part of basketball” and out of the team’s control.
“That is sports, man. That is life. You gotta deal in reality, and I thought our guys really approached it the right way,” he said. “There was no hanging of the head. It was, ‘hey man, let’s roll.’ Know what I mean?
But that certainly made it much more difficult.”
Worster was the only Ute in double figures as Smith substituted liberally in the second half when the game was out of reach, perhaps resting some of his starters for Saturday’s contest at USC, which beat Colorado 68-61 across town at the Galen Center.
Bostyn Holt made some plays and finished with six points, the most in a Utes uniform for the junior college transfer. Wilguens Exacte made two of Utah’s six 3-pointers in the second half. He seems to play better on the road than at home.
But it wasn’t nearly enough, as turnovers and some poor shot selection doomed Utah’s offense.
“I think we had some good flashes, but we struggled on the glass in general,” Worster said. “And we had some (breakdowns) on defense, and a lot of turnovers again, which we really need to clean up. It has kinda been our identity this season, is when we struggle we turn the ball over a lot.”
The Bruins shot 48.3% from the floor, taking advantage of Carlson’s absence inside. Four of Bona’s seven makes were on rim-rattling dunks.
“Utah is having a really good year, so I am really proud of this win,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin. “To be able to shoot almost 50% against them (was big). … And we had 21 assists tonight, so I am really happy with that.”
UCLA has won 12 straight since dropping a pair of games in Las Vegas in November and appears again to be the class of the league, along with Arizona. Utah showed some signs of that with its win over the then-No. 4 Wildcats in December, but is nowhere near a league title contender now.
Especially with Carlson out of the lineup.
“Branden really wanted to play tonight. And he tried to give it a go in warmups and that whole deal, and it just wasn’t meant to be. It is on us to have enough guys to fill in,” Smith said. “Obviously he is an all-league guy, so that hurts. We knew it was going to be tough with him. It made it a lot harder without him.”
Downright impossible, really.