April 18, 2024

They lost their composure. They lost their leading scorer. They lost their late lead.

Ultimately, they lost something that mattered far more.

With Sebastian Mack ejected and Adem Bona largely nonexistent Sunday evening, the UCLA Bruins faltered in the final moments in an emotionally charged game against the team that had humiliated them a little more than a month ago.

This defeat was worse. Way worse.

The Bruins appeared on the verge of payback against Utah when guard Dylan Andrews rose for a jumper just inside the three-point line, giving his team a one-point lead with 6.6 seconds left.

But in a decision that will be questioned for a long time, UCLA coach Mick Cronin called a timeout to set up his defense — and allow the Utes, who had no timeouts left — to set up a final play.

Utah got the ball to a driving Deivon Smith, who split two defenders before his layup was contested by Bona and glanced off the top of the backboard. The ball fell toward Utes big man Branden Carlson, whose putback with 0.2 seconds left pushed Utah into the lead and silenced the crowd inside Pauley Pavilion.

After UCLA forward Berke Buyuktuncel’s full-court inbounds pass was tipped away by Utah, the Bruins were left with a 70-69 loss that ended their six-game winning streak.

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic passes the ball in front of Utah center Keba Keita (13) after diving for a loose ball.

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic passes the ball in front of Utah center Keba Keita (13) after diving for a loose ball during the first half.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“It feels horrible,” UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic said. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it — it feels horrible. Had a game in our hand … I mean, it came down to that last play but you can count 20 plays down the stretch that we didn’t make that we could have made, which would have made a difference.”

UCLA’s first defeat since a road loss to Arizona late last month will prompt plenty of second-guessing. Cronin said he called timeout because he was worried that Smith was going to immediately sprint down court after Andrews’ shot and get fouled.

“I’m sure I’m going to go home and be mad that I called timeout,” Cronin said. “But I wanted to set my defense so we could slow him down, but we failed.”

The Bruins (14-12 overall, 9-6 Pac-12) had a chance to put the game away after Will McClendon made a three-pointer to give them a 67-64 lead and they got the ball back after a Utah miss. But two empty possessions sandwiched around a layup by Smith gave the ball back to the Utes trailing 67-66 with 41.1 seconds left.

UCLA forward Adem Bona (3) tries to block a shot by Utah center Branden Carlson during the first half.

UCLA forward Adem Bona (3) tries to block a shot by Utah center Branden Carlson during the first half.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Andrews then looked like the hero, until Carlson’s final play.

“Bona did a great job of forcing a tough shot,” McClendon said, “and usually when your five man stops the ball and goes to stop the shot, it leaves a mismatch for the guards and the bigs and we didn’t do our part in blocking out and getting the rebound.”

Stefanovic scored 19 points against his former team and Andrews had 15. But Bona finished with just seven points and two rebounds and Mack had four points in eight minutes before his ejection.

The only silver lining for UCLA: Barring a matchup in the Pac-12 tournament, the Bruins will not face the Utes (16-10, 7-8) again this season.

Smith and Carlson scored 17 points apiece for Utah, which logged its first conference road victory after starting 0-6.

UCLA had won eight of its previous nine games since its 46-point beatdown against Utah in Salt Lake City, prompting questions about whether the Bruins could thank the Utes for their turnaround. Did the pain of once trailing by as many as 50 points in that game snap UCLA back to attention?

In a word, according to their coach, no.

Cronin said his team’s resurgence was a result of incremental improvement, not motivation from a beatdown. But freshman forward Brandon Williams indicated recently that the Bruins had not forgotten about that cold, brutal night in Salt Lake City.

UCLA forward Berke Buyuktuncel, left, and guard Lazar Stefanovic, right, battle Utah guard Deivon Smith.

UCLA forward Berke Buyuktuncel, left, and guard Lazar Stefanovic, right, battle Utah guard Deivon Smith for a loose ball during the second half.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“Me personally, I can’t wait to play against them,” Williams said last Tuesday. “We got some revenge to get.”

They didn’t get it, leaving them with zero margin for error the rest of the regular season if they want to have any chance of making the NCAA tournament besides winning the Pac-12 tournament.

The Bruins found themselves shorthanded midway through the first half when Mack elbowed Carlson in the throat, earning a flagrant-2 foul and an ejection. Carlson stayed down on the court for more than a minute before going to the locker room and eventually returning.

Emotions boiled over several minutes later when Cronin was assessed a technical foul after a controversial call. The Bruins thought a Utah player had dribbled off his foot out of bounds, but television replays appeared to show the ball going off Stefanovic.

It was not the last thing that would go against UCLA.

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