Even after her Utah women’s basketball team took a perfect record into Pac-12 play, coach Lynne Roberts’ approach remained the same. The Utes would “put on our underdog hat,” she said, “and wear it all year.”
The AP voters spoiled that strategy. Utah's Top 25 ranking took away the underdog label and gave it to two visiting opponents, who caused all kinds of problems at the Huntsman Center. UCLA's 100-90 victory Sunday marked No. 17 Utah's fourth straight loss.
The latest one hurt, beyond the certainty of Utah's falling out of the rankings Monday. UCLA (14-9, 8-4 Pac-12) dropped Utah (18-5, 7-5) into sixth place in the conference with six regular-season games remaining. The top four teams receive first-round byes in the Pac-12 tournament.
The Utes initially responded well to their Top 25 status in late January. They beat highly regarded California, upset Stanford and led top-10 teams Oregon and Oregon State in the fourth quarter on the road, before losing. Utah fell apart, though, in the second halves of home losses to USC and UCLA.
“We have to come to the awareness that we have a target on our back now,” Roberts said. “So teams get up to play us and they get more focused and [beating Utah] is a big win, right?”
The Bruins earned their victory by making 11 of 15 shots from the field in the fourth quarter and scoring 40 points. Partly because the Utes' fouling extended the game after they fell behind by 17, Utah allowed 100 points for the first time since a four-overtime game in 2010. In regulation, no opponent had scored 100 since 1986.
“They weren't missing shots,” Roberts said. “Part of that's a reflection of our intensity on defense, maybe.”
All day, the Utes seemingly were about to take control of the game, only to miss layups and have the Bruins score inside. The tone changed when Ute senior forward Megan Huff picked up her fourth foul late in the third quarter and went to the bench, with her team leading 52-51. UCLA's Japreece Dean hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 60-56 lead.
The Bruins scored six more points in the first minute of the fourth period, starting with Michaela Onyenwere's steal and layup on the in-bounds pass. Huff re-entered and Utah quickly got within five points, but the Bruins reasserted themselves in a stretch when “we had some tough calls not go our way,” Roberts said. “Maybe we're just not to the point as a program where we get those calls.”
UCLA shot 56.1 percent from the field, with three players combining for 75 points: Kennedy Burke (26), Onyenwere (25) and Dean (24).
Huff posted 23 points and 13 rebounds, freshman Dre'Una Edwards scored a season-high 21 and Kiana Moore added 17 for Utah. Yet the Utes' lapses at both ends of the court kept them from getting any separation in the first three quarters, when they looked like the better team.
The opportunity to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 for the first time remains ahead of Utah, although bigger possibilities were in play as recently as Friday. The Utes' NCAA Tournament at-large status is now in question, after ESPN's Bracketology gave them a No. 6 seed last week. “We've had a really good season, still, and we still have to capitalize on that,” Huff said. “Obviously, it hurts right now … but we've just got to move forward.”
The Utes will play Friday at Arizona, and then they’ll be underdogs at No. 20 Arizona State next Sunday. Maybe they’ll embrace that role again.