SALT LAKE CITY —
Utah had the crowd, the momentum and the diminutive point guard nobody had heard of blazing his way for a career’s worth of points in one memorable evening.
UCLA had its late-game savior doing his thing.
Advantage, Bruins. Big-time.
With basket after basket, one highlight after another, Jaime Jaquez Jr. nudged his team toward its latest breathless finish.
Just as he did in helping his team close out recent victories over Oregon and Stanford, Jaquez was the Bruins’ closer once again Thursday night after their 16-point lead had dwindled to three.
He broke a double-team with a bounce pass to Jaylen Clark for a layup. He made a step-back jumper. A driving layup.
Finally, most cold-bloodedly, Jaquez buried a fadeaway three-pointer with 63 seconds left, sending fans inside the Huntsman Center streaming toward the exits with the fourth-ranked Bruins on their way to a 78-71 victory.
Jaquez punctuated the last of his 23 points by holding up three fingers and delivering a celebratory message as he ran back on defense.
“I said, ‘I’m not going home sad,’” said Jaquez, who made 10 of 15 shots, thriving late in the game as part of a small lineup. “I didn’t want to lose tonight.”
It looked like the Bruins (24-4 overall, 15-2 Pac-12) might be headed in that direction after Utah guard Mike Saunders Jr., who entered the game averaging 2.7 points, piled up a career-high 25 for the short-handed Utes (17-12, 10-8).
Seemingly finished when it trailed by 16 points midway through the second half, Utah enjoyed such an epic surge while holding UCLA without a basket for six minutes that Utes coach Craig Smith repeatedly pumped his arm when he came onto the court during a timeout, as if his team had just won a title.
The only one that might be captured in the coming days could belong to the Bruins after Jaquez made his flurry of plays and point guard Tyger Campbell (18 points, five assists) made a three-pointer to extend his team’s lead to 71-64 with 2:18 left.
“He’s tough, man,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of Jaquez.
“He can make threes, he can beat you off the dribble so if you put a tall guy on him, he goes by, if you don’t guard him, he makes the shot. He’s a tough cover.”
The Bruins celebrated their seventh consecutive victory with some special guests, former guard Chris Smith lingering in a hallway outside the locker room and all-time UCLA great Gail Goodrich clapping softly as he walked past Jaquez.
A two-game lead over Arizona in the Pac-12 standings left the Bruins on the verge of their first conference regular-season title in a decade. The possibility was discussed by players before they started this trip.
“I mean, that’s the reason we came here,” Clark said earlier this week. “I know it ain’t been done since 2013.”
Clark and senior forward Jaquez tried to recall who was on that team. The stars were Shabazz Muhammad, Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson, the Bruins edging Oregon by one game in the conference standings. Everything was a downer from there, Jordan Adams breaking his foot in the Pac-12 tournament and coach Ben Howland getting fired after the Bruins lost by 20 points to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Another Pac-12 championship is UCLA’s for the taking. The Bruins could clinch at least a share of the title with victory over Colorado on Sunday.
If the Bruins beat the Buffaloes and Arizona loses to Arizona State on Saturday, UCLA would be outright champions before the end of the weekend.
“I told the guys all week, ‘Look, guys, this is not a time to take the foot off the gas,’” Cronin said. “If we lose now, it needs to be because somebody played great to beat us. We don’t need to come out, lay an egg, not be ready, look past anybody.”
Goodrich cheered the Bruins from behind the team bench, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer who won two national championships at UCLA taking in the game after making the four-hour drive from his home in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Faring well this week would come with the bonus of boosting UCLA’s NCAA tournament standing in the wake of the brouhaha that erupted last week when the Bruins were seeded behind Arizona in the early bracket reveal.
The selection committee clearly penalized the Bruins for having only four so-called Quadrant 1 victories against top-tier teams compared to the Wildcats’ six.
Victories over Utah and Colorado on the road would both qualify as Quad 1 because the Utes and Buffaloes are in the top 75 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool that’s one of the metrics used by the selection committee.
It didn’t matter that Utah was without two top players, Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster both out for the game against the Bruins because of leg injuries, taking their combined average of 20.4 points off the board.
Into the void stepped Saunders, whose speed off the bench caused significant problems. But the Bruins had more when it mattered.
With one tough basket after another, Jaquez lifted his team to its latest thrilling victory.
Tacking on one more would mean the Bruins made some history.