Los Angeles • The Utes came into the night with one of the toughest defenses to score on in the Pac-12, and they’d excelled at limiting an opponent’s 3-point shooting.
That was before UCLA guards Aaron Holiday and Kris Wilkes caught fire.
The final buzzer seemed to be the only thing that stopped Holiday as he scored 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with six assists as the Bruins dealt Utah an 83-64 loss in Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night. Wilkes added 19 as the Bruins shot 52 percent from the field and made 12 3-pointers, improving to a league-best 4-1.
Seniors David Collette (15 points) and Justin Bibbins (12 points) led the Utes (10-6, 2-3 Pac-12), who have lost three consecutive conference games.
“We just focus on the next game,” Bibbins said. “You can’t look at the past. You just learn from it and keep going forward.”
The Utes played without freshman forward Donnie Tillman and sophomore center Jayce Johnson. Tillman missed his second game in a row after having returned from a left foot sprain to play against Arizona last week.
It’s unclear if Tillman re-aggravated the foot injury because Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak has declined to answer questions about Tillman’s status since he did not dress for Sunday’s game against Arizona State, though ESPN commentator Bill Walton referred to Tillman’s injury as possibly being a stress fracture during the telecast. Krystkowiak shot down Walton’s comments after the game and said he didn’t know where Walton got that from.
Johnson remained at the team hotel battling a stomach bug. Tillman and Johnson being unavailable left the Utes with a short bench and without two of their better rebounders.
However, the frontcourt wasn’t the most pressing issue. The perimeter defense proved the Utes’ downfall. Holiday scored 13 first-half points and dished out six assists as the Bruins shot 57 percent from the floor and scored 41 points in the first 20 minutes.
“We were really lethargic, I thought, to start the game,” Krystkowiak said. “We worked on this team can shoot the ball, a lot of different guys with their length. It was like a bad dream to start the game. It seemed like about their first eight shots were uncontested swishes. It even got compounded. They finally missed one, and then got the rebound and made it.”
Utah tried multiple defenders in attempts to slow Holiday down, but his blend of quickness and outside shooting ability stumped the Utes. Holiday drew a combination of gasps and cheers from the crowd with a crossover dribble to shake free of a defender and pull-up 3-pointer to give the Bruins a 31-25 lead. Holiday didn’t miss a shot in the half (4 of 4, three 3-pointers).
“They just hit shots,” Bibbins said. “They got hot early. We’ve got to do a better job contesting.”
The Utes looked as though they might get run out of the building in the opening minutes as the Bruins unleashed a shooting barrage that included making their first four 3-pointers and putting together an 11-0 run to take a 16-5 lead.
The Utes, who shot 50 percent from the field in the first half, pulled within three in the despite shooting 3 of 14 on 3s. They trailed 41-33 at halftime after the Bruins scored the final four points.
The Bruins started the second half on an 11-4 run that included an alley-oop dunk by Wilkes. The run put the Utes behind 52-37, and the deficit reached 21 points in the second half.