SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – For a while, it looked like Utah was going to pull off by far its most impressive victory of the year.
But the Utes could not close out #9 UCLA, extending its longest losing streak in 10 years with a 63-58 loss to the Bruins.
The Utes (8-11, 1-7 Pac-12), who were without starting center Branden Carlson, who is still recovering from an appendectomy, for a fourth straight game, got a career-high 18 points from freshman Lazar Stefanovic on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. Both Gach added 11 points, four rebounds and five assists with a pair of steals.
But Johnny Juzang proved to be a one-man wrecking crew for UCLA, scoring 28 points.
Stefanovic missed an open jumper from the top of the key that could have tied the game late.
“I’m unbelievably proud of our kids,” said Utah head coach Craig Smith. “Gave ourselves every opportunity to win. Played a complete game on both ends, and really showed a lot of tenacity.”
Trailing 54-51, the Bruins went on a 7-0 run capped by Juzang’s drive. The Utes had a couple of chances to tie it in the final 30 seconds, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. drew an offensive foul on Gach and the Utes missed two 3-pointers.
“I know Gach likes to go hard in transition,” Jaquez said “And once I saw him put his head down, I just slid over and took it. I was scared since the ref took a while to call it.”
Utah kept the game tight by trapping on defense in the post and staying attached to perimeter shooters. After committing only three turnovers in the first half, the Bruins lost the ball four times in a 3:36 span and Utah regained the lead.
Midway through the second half, Tyger Campbell went down hard after driving for a contested layup and writhed in pain as Stefanovic hit a 3-pointer on the other end for a 46-42 Utah advantage.
“We struggled with our execution. Their physicality bothered us around the rim,” Cronin said.
Without Carlson, the Utes relied on the long ball and went 11 for 26 from 3-point range while making only seven field goals inside the arc.
“We’re close. We’re figuring some things out,” Smith said.
The is the first time Utah has lost seven straight games since the 2010-11 season.
The focal point of the Bruins’ offense all game, Juzang shot 9 of 13 and connected on three of UCLA’s five 3-pointers. The performance marked his third straight game with 20 or more points, but he said the key to the game was his teammates’ clutch play at the end.
“It was a battle all game and came down to those last four minutes. Everybody made smart plays, big-time plays and hustle plays that were huge,” Juzang said.
Juzang sparked the Bruins to a 12-3 lead and scored 13 of UCLA’s first 17 points. Problem was, none of the other Bruins besides Jaquez could generate much offense. The Utes crept back and took the lead on a 3-pointer by Stefanovic with 7:36 to play until halftime.
Despite 18 first-half points from Juzang, Utah led 32-31 at the break after Riley Battin’s 3-pointer.
A tightly contested second half saw seven lead changes and with six ties but none was more important than what transpired after UCLA (12-2, 4-1 Pac-12) knotted things up at 51-51 with 5:41 to go after an irate head coach for the Bruins called the timeout.
With the game tied up, Gach hit a huge three to give the Utes a 54-51 advantage. However, the veteran Bruin team rose to the occasion and reeled off seven-straight points to force a Utah timeout with 2:42 remaining. Stefanovic brought the Utes within 58-57 out of the break with another huge triple but UCLA’s Juzang was tough to defend as the pre-season All-American pick knocked down two huge free throws to put the Bruins ahead 60-57.
Gach’s drive to the rack on the next play put him at the stripe with 55 seconds left to play and went 1-of-2. Utah was able to get a stop on the defensive end but a costly turnover (charge) on the fast break saw UCLA seal the game hitting 3-of-4 from the free throw line but not before the Gabe Madsen and Stefanovic both had clean looks at the rim.
Utah will have another tough task ahead as it welcomes in #16 USC on Saturday, Jan. 22, for a 4:30 p.m. tip off inside the Huntsman Center.