UCLA’s defense holds against Utah for fourth consecutive win

UCLA was making it troublesome to score, jamming passing lanes, staying in front of everyone and switching crisply on screens.

Looking lost for long stretches, Utah used a full-length timeout to plan its attack early in the second half. The Utes passed and passed and passed, probing for an opening. None arose.

Finally, Both Gach rose for a three-pointer but it was too late. The buzzer went off, signaling a shot-clock violation. Already restless fans booed inside the Huntsman Center.

The frustration mounted against a defense that was in lockdown mode, UCLA continually stifling the Utes on the way to a 69-58 victory Thursday night that extended the Bruins’ winning streak to four games.

“Defensively, we couldn’t play much better,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after his team held Utah without a three-pointer until 10 minutes left in the game.

The Bruins (16-11, 9-5 Pac-12 Conference) were so good defensively that they could be forgiven for a sloppy stretch late in the game that allowed the Utes (14-12, 5-9) to shave what had been a 20-point deficit to seven. Freshman point guard Tyger Campbell committed back-to-back turnovers in the backcourt and the fans who remained started to make a stir.

“I told Dave [Singleton] and Tyger, ‘Are you guys trying to put me in the hospital?’” Cronin said with a smile. “Sometimes you either laugh or cry, and I decided to laugh.”

UCLA sophomore guard Jules Bernard came off the bench and delivered perhaps his finest performance of the season with teammates Chris Smith and Jaime Jaquez Jr. in early foul trouble. Bernard scored 14 of his game-high 16 points in the first half and played ferocious defense.

Bernard said the Bruins executed their plan of hectoring Utah’s top three-point shooters, funneling them into the paint for contested shots. The Utes finished the game making only three of 12 three-pointers.

“Our bigs have been playing physical and we know we’ve rebounded the ball really well,” Bernard said, “so if we forced them into tough shots into the paint, we had a great opportunity to get the rebound.”

Campbell turned in a strong all-around effort, logging 13 points and four assists to go with his two late turnovers. UCLA committed 19 turnovers to Utah’s 16, perhaps the only factor that kept the Utes somewhat competitive.

Utah forward Timmy Allen tries to drive past UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. during the second half of a game Feb. 20 at Jon M. Hunstman Center.

Utah forward Timmy Allen tries to drive past UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. during the second half of a game Feb. 20 at Jon M. Hunstman Center.

(Alex Goodlett / Associated Press)

“If it wasn’t for that,” Cronin said, “we win by 30.”

After leading by 12 at the break, UCLA made its first four shots in the second half, eventually extending its advantage to 51-31 on a Campbell jumper before the Utes commenced a run.

UCLA assumed sole possession of fifth place in the Pac-12 standings. Everything has revolved around defense for a team that has won eight of its last 10 games, holding opponents to an average of 59.1 points in those victories.

“We’ve slowly changed our DNA,” Cronin said. “That’s been the biggest key. But we had to go through what we had to go through for them to realize we’re going to change our DNA or we’re not going to win.”

The rest of UCLA’s schedule presents opportunities for more quality wins. The Bruins will face No. 18 Colorado on Saturday at the CU Events Center, which basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy has deemed the best homecourt advantage in college basketball mostly because it’s 5,345 feet above sea level.

Then come home games against Arizona State, whose bevy of quick guards present a nightmare matchup for the Bruins, and No. 24 Arizona, which will be eager for payback after UCLA smacked the Wildcats this month in Tucson. UCLA’s final game before the Pac-12 tournament will be at USC, which handled the Bruins with ease last month at Pauley Pavilion but has gone into a late-season tailspin.

“Obviously, the situation we’re in, we need to play the four teams we finish with for a resume [building] chance,” Cronin said, “but it’s also good for our growth. When you play better teams, it forces you to look in the mirror on what you’ve got to do to get where you want to go.”

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