As his team scraped its way to one taut victory after another, prevailing through grit and tenaciousness, coach Mick Cronin said it was no juggernaut.
UCLA surely looked like one Thursday.
The Bruins made Utah resemble five traffic cones draped in white-and-red jerseys, moving freely for open shots and making things equally difficult on the other end of the court with lockdown defense.
In what might have been its most dominant start-to-finish performance of the season, UCLA rolled to a 76-61 win at Huntsman Center that represented a rare breather for a team that could use one from its high-wire act.
“Utah is a very good team, guys,” Cronin told reporters after the Bruins made 11 of 19 three-pointers, the most they have sunk in the coach’s two seasons. “We made them look average tonight.”
While winning their fourth consecutive game, the Bruins (17-5 overall, 13-3 Pac-12 Conference) claimed first place in the standings by one-half game after USC lost to Colorado.
The outcome was decided only a few minutes into the second half, the Bruins using a 16-5 spurt to take a 19-point lead. UCLA forward Cody Riley sparked the run with consecutive jump hooks and a steal, looking more nimble than he has since suffering a sprained ankle in practice three weeks ago.
“I’d say tonight was the closest he’s been to 100%,” Cronin said after Riley scored 15 points on seven-for-nine shooting.
Cronin said he noticed Riley was back to himself when he blocked a shot while on the run in practice Wednesday.
“I was like ‘Oh, OK,’” Cronin said. “And you know, he hadn’t even come close to doing anything like that in a couple of weeks.”
Riley’s strong post presence allowed the Bruins to maximize the inside-out approach Cronin wanted, with one long-range shot after another sailing through the net. Jules Bernard (19 points) and Johnny Juzang (18) each made four of six three-pointers for a team that shot 57.9% from beyond the arc.
It didn’t matter how Utah defended the pick and roll, going underneath screens early in the game before switching to give UCLA the mismatches it wanted; the Bruins were equally effective, their confidence building as they made six of 10 three-pointers on the way to a 35-27 halftime lead.
“I felt like those open shots got us going and got us in the flow,” Bernard said, “and then from there, we kept getting open shots and knocking them in.”
Cronin praised his team for taking its time on offense and rebounding from a sloppy early stretch in which it committed three turnovers in the first 3½ minutes; UCLA committed just seven turnovers the rest of the game.
The Bruins also played stifling defense without fouling, the Utes (9-11, 6-10) never going to the free-throw line once. It was the first time UCLA had kept an opponent off the foul line since doing it against Delaware State on Nov. 19, 2005.
“I guess there’s plenty of time for everybody to get something to eat,” Cronin cracked after the completion of a game that lasted only 1 hour 39 minutes.
Cronin noted that his team might have held Utah to 50 points had the Utes not gotten hot late from long range. Center Brandon Carlson led the Utes with 17 points but guard Timmy Allen, Utah’s leading scorer, was held to eight points.
Unranked and projected as a No. 9 seed by ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi in the wake of no marquee nonconference wins and all those last-minute finishes, the Bruins looked like a team worthy of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend even without Chris Smith (knee injury) and Jalen Hill (personal reasons).
“We have a lot of weapons and when we play together and play with confidence,” Bernard said, “I feel like we’re a very tough team to stop.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.