Jay has covered sports in Utah for more than 30 years and has been writing for the Deseret News since 2019.
Playing without their starting backcourt of Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster, the Runnin’ Utes threw a scare into the No. 4-ranked UCLA Bruins Thursday night before falling 78-71 at the Huntsman Center.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting, while Mike Saunders Jr. had 25 to lead the Utes.
Utah fell to 17-12 overall, 10-8 in Pac-12 play, with the loss. UCLA improved to 24-4 and 15-2.
Here are 3 keys to Utah’s 78-71 loss to the Pac-12-leading Bruins:
• UCLA’s Jaquez made another strong case to be the Pac-12’s Player of the Year. When the game was on the line in the second half, the senior took over and willed the Bruins to the win with one big play after another. Tyger Campbell added 18 for UCLA.
• The Utes struggled offensively the first 30 minutes of the game without Madsen and Worster. They picked it up midway through the second half, as Saunders got hot off the bench. Saunders, who has barely played the last two months of the season, had his best game as a Ute, going 10 of 17 from the field.
• Freshman Wil Exacte made his first career start for the Utes, replacing Worster (sprained ankle) in the lineup, and hit a big 3-pointer during Utah’s come back in the second half.
However, the Utes had lost contact by shooting 33% in the first half — including 0 of 10 from 3-point range — and were behind 43-31 at the break. UCLA was 4 of 5 from deep in the first half and shot 61% in the first 20 minutes.
Utah cut the deficit to three with five minutes left, but could never quite catch the Bruins.