Sluggish performance, Norman Powell drop No. 11 Utah out of Pac-12’s top spot

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In the first meeting of the season between No. 11 Utah and UCLA the Bruins played one of their worst games of the season, scoring 15 points in the first half and shooting 28.8% from the field in the 71-39 defeat. With the Runnin’ Utes tied with No. 6 Arizona in the loss column atop the Pac-12 standings, a win in Los Angeles would have allowed them to keep pace with the Wildcats.

But UCLA put forth a far better performance in their rematch with Utah, winning 69-59 on the strength of 23 points from senior guard Norman Powell.

After taking a three-point lead into the locker room UCLA opened the second half on a 12-0 run that gave them the working margin they needed to pick up their first win over a ranked opponent this season. Bryce Alford added 14 points and seven assists and fellow guard Isaac Hamilton, who shot 2-for-24 in the three games prior to Thursday, scored 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field.

And while the return of Tony Parker, who missed both games in Oregon last week due to back issues, certainly helped UCLA so did the play of freshman center Thomas Welsh.

Welsh, who averaged 6.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in losses to Oregon State and Oregon, finished with seven points, two rebounds and two assists against Utah, holding his own against the Runnin’ Utes’ front court. Yet while UCLA’s improved play certainly can’t be overlooked, just as problematic for Utah was their own performance on both ends of the floor.

Utah shot 48.9% from the field but was far too reliant on the perimeter shot, as 22 of their 47 field goal attempts were three-pointers. Utah made just seven of those shots, and the settling for perimeter looks (due in part to the matchup zone employed by UCLA with Kevon Looney at the top of it) resulted in the visitors not taking full advantage of the opportunities inside of the arc and also losing the turnover battle.

Utah turned the ball over 14 times, with UCLA converting those mistakes into 18 points, and they also allowed 34 points in the paint. While a UCLA team desperate for a win buckled down, the effort that Utah has played with for most of the season wasn’t present Thursday night and it cost them.

“They wanted it more. There were numerous things we did poorly,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the game. “You can start with our scheme and not executing. Our personnel match ups and efforts just weren’t there. Some nights you can get away with one of those things but not all three in the same game like tonight.

“We didn’t deserve to win. They were the aggressor. Their zone screwed us up some and we didn’t do enough to put ourselves in a position to win. It’s time for everyone to look at themselves and find ways to improve.”

Brandon Taylor helped keep Utah afloat with 14 points and five assists, with Delon Wright scoring a team-high 15 while also grabbing six rebounds. But Thursday’s defeat can serve as a valuable learning experience for the Runnin’ Utes moving forward. Their role within the conference has changed, as Utah’s gone from a program looking to make its mark within the Pac-12 to a team with hopes of making a run deep into March.

With that comes the transition from “hunter” to “hunted,” a process that can at times be difficult for teams to navigate. Utah’s done a good job of this for most of the season, but they let their effort slip Thursday night and the result was their second conference loss of the season.