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SALT LAKE CITY — The task to dethrone No. 7 UCLA at home was always going to be a tall task. It became even more difficult when starting center and the team's leading scorer Branden Carlson was a last-minute scratch from the game on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.
Carlson went through early shootaround but was removed from the lineup due to a non-COVID related illness.
"I found out he was sick when I got on the bus at 5:55 p.m.," Utah head coach Craig Smith said. "Branden wanted to go tonight. He gave it a go at pre-game, but it just didn't work out. It wasn't meant to be. We knew coming in here it was going to be difficult and also to win on the road. We really have to win by 10 to win by one."
Carlson's absence was enough for UCLA to dominate the post as Utah utilized four guards for much of the game and struggled to contain Adem Bona.
UCLA's Bona went to work in the post and scored 15 of the team's 36 points in the paint, and Tyger Campbell did damage from behind the arc with a team-high 17 points, including three key 3-pointers, as the Bruins pulled away for a 68-49 win against the visiting Utes.
"Congratulations to UCLA. They are a very elite team and you don't get ranked at No. 7 unless you are a good team," Smith said. "We looked at the game from last year and they're a much better team. Their defense is impeccable. They guard the ball. They have tremendous length and they have high-rim protection with Bona.
"They turn you over at a high level — kudos to them. We had to get into a rhythm, but they speed you up on both sides of the floor. We had two things we wanted to do in this game: We wanted to take care of the ball and rebound. They had fourteen offensive rebounds."
Utah's (12-6, 5-2) defense held UCLA scoreless for the first four minutes of the game, but it was short lived as the Bruins then went on an 11-0 run to take a lead it would never give up for the remainder of the game. The Bruins built up a double-digit lead in the first half that Utah managed to cut to nine at halftime before pulling away with ease in the second half.
UCLA (15-2, 6-0) sped up Utah with its three-quarter court pressing attack, forced turnovers, and kept the Utes out of sync for the duration of the game.
It was a Utah team that couldn't get into a rhythm or find a consistent threat on the offensive end of the ball, outside of Rollie Worster's team-high 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. No other player for the Utes finished in double figures on a night where Utah didn't break the 50-point threshold.
Utah finished with 16 turnovers against a UCLA team that leads the Pac-12 in turnover differential and is ranked No. 3 in the country. The turnovers translated to 19 UCLA points, though it was hardly an impact to the game. UCLA outrebounded Utah 40-27 and had 21 second-chance points to keep pace on Utah.
The Utes finished the night shooting 37% from the field and 32% from 3-point range, while the Bruins had no problem on the offensive side of the ball and finished the game shooting 48% from the field and 39% from deep.
Early in the second half, Utah head coach Craig Smith mixed up his lineups and essentially waved the white flags, all while UCLA pulled away to take its largest lead of the game (24 points). Utah will look to regroup for a Saturday night matchup against USC (8:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) at the Galen Center.
"I think we can really learn a lot from tonight," Smith said. "We're going to watch film and see what it takes to be a top-10 team. They have no holes and we'll learn from them. We played a lot of guys tonight, so, hopefully, they will learn from this. We don't want to be UCLA, but we want to be our own version of a top-10 team."