Maybe the message of last night's 75-73 game was that Steve Alford's Bruins were never that close, in this game, or to the NCAAs. As a result this is going to be another season of negative firsts.
The significance of the program's first victory at Pauley Pavilion, and the first at UCLA since 1961, was overshadowed by the drama of the finish, which probably should've been anything but close. But starting Utah's last road trip of the regular season with a win kept a scowl off coach Larry Krystkowiak's face.
If it was a 36-minute game, it would've been substantially better for the heart. With an 11-point second half, sophomore center Jakob Poeltl helped power Utah to a 40-24 advantage in the paint and a 70-60 lead with 4:02 remaining.
But as the Utes were ready to head to the hotel, the Bruins suddenly charged. UCLA made eight straight field goals, including an 8-0 run that turned the Utes from near-victorious to suddenly vulnerable.
As Isaac Hamilton threw in a layup with 2:30 to go, cutting the gap to 70-68, the somewhat tepid 7,249-strong Pauley Pavilion crowd turned ravenous.
Some might focus on how close we came to winning. I usually don't like to quote kids (unlike coaches) and dissect their comments because kids are, well, kids. They aren't paid and interviews should be fun and a learning experience. I think what may have come out of my mouth at 19 and cringe. But this time I am going to go after a player's quote a bit:
We are very inconsistent. We go through stretches where I feel we can beat any team in the country and there are other times when any team can beat us. The coaches do a great job of speaking to us at halftime and pumping us up. We just have to keep up the energy, even in bad times.
Bryce Alford said the above quote. The player that Steve chose to take to PAC 12 Media +Day. The player until recently leading UCLA in shot attempts despite shooting under 39%. But I am not going after him. I am going after the coaches part of the quote. Shouldn't the coaches, especially at home, do a great job of keeping the players up the whole game? Shouldn't the coaches always have the team prepared to play?
As Steve Alford said (emphasis mine):
UCLA, despite trailing for nearly the entire second half, pulled within two points of Utah with less than three minutes left thanks to a sweeping layup from Isaac Hamilton and a pull-up, straightaway 3-pointer by Bryce Alford.
The baskets came amid a flurry of eights points in 72 seconds, breathing life into the Bruins, who had trailed by 14 earlier in the half.
"We picked up our intensity, something we should've had for the entire game," Alford said.
As a result as the Intern writes in "UCLA's tournament hopes continue to fade with home loss to Utah"
For UCLA, the margins are as slim as floaters that don't float quite enough.
Small plays, within the context of a season. But the Bruins' sluggish Pac-12 Conference start meant these mini breakdowns may have torpedoed their NCAA tournament chances Thursday.
"I think the guys obviously knew that, because of how we started the conference season, that this was a must-win," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. "We couldn't get it done."
With five games remaining, UCLA has no respite. It can hardly afford any more losses like Thursday's.
"You've got to be able to handle pressure," Alford said. "In the games that we've needed the most, we haven't done that. And that's kind of been the story of the season."
UCLA is an ugly 3-3 at home in the PAC 12. UCLA needs to win the rest of games to have a winning PAC 12 record. Actually UCLA could potentially lose to Colorado, at UC Berkeley, at Stanford, and to Oregon to finish with an overall losing record of 15-16. I don't think that will happen but I think that is more likely that going 5-0 the rest of the way.
In any case in his third season, Steve Alford's team is officially a train wreck. As Steve himself said:
It was also the team's fourth home loss of the season, doubling the total from head coach Steve Alford's first two seasons.
"This was a must-win," Alford said. "You come back home, you've got to win home games. You lose home games, you're not going to fare well in this league.
"Where we're at record-wise, and we're at standings-wise, that's what we deserve."
More later but this team is not close to where it should be right now.