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SALT LAKE CITY — Snow gently fell outside the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Thursday night, as the Runnin' Utes took another rough fall after a hard-fought battle against UCLA, losing 57-53.
The first three games of the Pac-12 season have now come and gone in eerily similar fashion, with the Utes having golden opportunities to come away with victories, but coming up empty in each case.
Utah was playing from behind for most of the night against UCLA, but two huge plays from freshman forward Jordan Loveridge cut the Bruins' lead to two points, 55-53, with 3:28 remaining.
The Utes (8-7, 0-3) were unable to convert multiple wide-open looks, however, when they had chances to tie or take the lead during the final minutes of the heartbreaking loss.
Utah went 0 for 6 over those last three-and-a-half minutes, a stretch that included two wide-open 3-point shots from Glen Dean, which both rimmed out.
"They were great looks," said senior center Jason Washburn. "One of our best shooters, Glen Dean, got two shots that he can make in his sleep, and I would trust him with them a hundred times more in the same situation. Unfortunately, like the story of the past two games, when we needed them to fall, that's just when they didn't."
"Coach Larry (Krystkowiak) put us in the right position," senior guard Cedric Martin said. "We got open. We just didn't hit shots down the stretch."
Travis Wear, Larry Drew, and Jordan Adams each scored 12 points to lead UCLA (13-3, 3-0), with Wear grabbing eight boards and Drew dishing out four assists. The Bruins have now won eight straight and are undefeated in conference play.
UCLA was the more aggressive team in the first half, running out to a 34-23 halftime lead. The Bruins' length and aggression forced the Utes into nine first-half turnovers, which led to 10 points. UCLA led by as many as 13 in the first half, Utah's largest deficit of the season.
Yet the Utes held to their tough, hard-nosed form, fighting back in the second half. A 9-0 Utah run cut the margin to three, 44-41, halfway through the second period.
But as has happened in three consecutive contests, Utah could not manage to get over the hump.
"In the first half, our two points were rebounding and transition, and we gave them too much of either," said Washburn. "The second half, I thought we came out fighting. It's just a matter of hitting shots now, for everybody. That last sequence of shots didn't determine the game — it was over the course of time. That's how basketball has always been."
Martin led the Utes in scoring with 12 points, while Washburn scored 11 points with 11 rebounds. Loveridge added 11 points and six boards, bouncing back from a rough first half in which he shot 0 for 6.
The biggest contribution from Martin came in defending UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, thought by many to be the best freshman player in the nation. Muhammad went 3 for 13 from the field, scoring a season-low six points.
"I didn't play him like a baby. I played him like a grown man," Martin said. "Everyone kept saying he was the No. 1 (freshman) in the nation and what not, but I just didn't let it phase me. I got in his grill as much as I could, and did whatever I had to do to keep him to the six points he had."
"He's a heckuva defender, an absolute gem," said Krystkowiak. "I love the kid. Every team needs a guy like him. I hope some of our younger guys are watching. And Ced's not the most talented guy, he'd be the first to tell you. But he's my kind of guy. It's great to see him make shots. That's what we talk about all the time — 'you guys go out and play defense, and the shots will go for you.' He's the poster child for that message."
"There are no amount of words to speak of the value of Cedric Martin," Washburn said. "The man plays harder than anyone I have ever been on the court with. He's a very smart basketball player. Offensively, he takes what the game gives him. He guarded one of the best freshmen in the country, and I thought he did an absolutely phenomenal job, like he always does on the defensive end. We are absolutely lucky to have him."
Utah's defense kept it in the game, as the Utes once again held a high-scoring team well below its season average. The Bruins came into Thursday night's matchup averaging just under 80 points per game, and Utah only allowed them to score 57.
"It's getting old," said Martin. "I'm tired of the moral victories. We're still learning from our mistakes. We just need to close the game. We need to seal the deal."
The Utes will look to bounce back yet again and nab their first conference win Saturday when they host USC (6-10, 1-2).
"They're a lot better than their record says," Washburn said of the Trojans. "And we're looking to get our first Pac-12 win. So we'll be geared up for sure."
Saturday's game tips off at 4 p.m. MST, and will air on Pac-12 Networks and on the radio at 700 AM.