SALT LAKE CITY — The Bruins were having trouble finishing what they had started. Midway through, they had to adjust their initial plan.
Before the finish line, they desperately needed a clutch maneuver from the man at the controls.
So the bus driver in charge of the team caravan pressed the gas pedal, even with the wheels slipping all over the road, and successfully conquered a detour to make it.
UCLA’s four-mile trek from the team hotel to the Jon M. Huntsman Center was dicey, and the 40-minute game awaiting them against Utah was just as rough, and required just as much ingenuity.
The Bruins ended up winning their first true road game, 57-53, in a game that was unlike any they had played this season.
A snowstorm pelted this city before tipoff, reducing the Utes’ home arena, which many expected to be sold out, to about a third of its capacity.
UCLA did even more to silence the crowd by racing to an 11-point halftime lead.
Just as the Utes’ fans slowly filed in late, the game’s pace slowed to a crawl, resulting in the Bruins’ lowest point total of the season. UCLA started clanking shots and Utah was within a possession in the final minutes.
These Bruins, half of them freshmen, were not ready for the taunts, or playing at altitude, or the way shots died on the rims as if they were frozen.
Nor were the Bruins ready for the Utes to grind it out defensively, led by a wing defender named Cedric Martin who showed total irreverence to the hype surrounding UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad.
“I didn’t play like a baby. I played him like a grown man,” Martin said of his defense.
“Everybody kept saying he is the number one player in the nation or whatnot and I didn’t let it faze me. I got in his grill, talking, hitting, whatever I had to do to keep him down to the six points he had.”
Muhammad’s six points on 3-of-13 shooting was his lowest point total of the season and marked the first time he failed to score double-digits in his college career.
He missed his first five shots with Martin covering him like the snow on the streets, couldn’t get to the free-throw line as he would have liked and even airballed a wide-open 3-pointer late in the game.
This is life on the road, something this young Bruin team had yet to experience after a non-conference slate that included only home and neutral site games.
The Bruins had to adapt, and they did. They played to Utah’s pace, grinding the game out. All the freshmen, not just Muhammad, were having problems finding the basket late.
The win was capped off by senior point guard Larry Drew II. UCLA saw that Utah was switching every ball screen, so Drew held the ball and calmly ran a pick-and-roll, a play that isn’t at the forefront of UCLA’s offensive system.
He got the switch, hesitated, then blew by the much bigger defender for a game-sealing layup with nine seconds left.
“I can’t get rattled ’cause I can’t let my teammates see me like that,” Drew said after the game.
“I’m the PG, I’m the senior. I have to calm everybody else down.”
UCLA learned that it takes some adjustments and a steady hand at the controls to survive on the road.
Like the pregame bus ride, it ended successfully.
Email Menezes at [email protected].