With the influx of freshman talent into the Utah basketball program, the possibility exists that a few years down the road the Utes could look back on Sunday afternoon as a moment that provided sorely needed experience.
But the worst wounds are the ones that are freshly opened. And not only did Utah suffer a tantalizingly close 68-64 defeat at the hands of No. 9 Arizona, it did so in the same scripted manner that’s defined too many losses in the last few months.
Before a season-high Huntsman Center crowd of 11,712, the Utes threw a huge scare into the national power Wildcats for the second time in a month. For the second time this season, Utah trailed Arizona by a sizable margin in the second-half and rallied down the stretch.
But like many games this season, the Utes were too inexperienced to make the plays actually needed to win. The Wildcats got defensive stops, made free throws and held on in the final minute.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It leaves me feeling like I want to watch the film and figure out what happened. We had some mindless turnovers. But I was encouraged that we came back and were a couple of plays away from making this thing happen.”
Krystkowiak entered the season excited about the potential of his rookie class. He liked the talent, but he liked the depth as well, feeling that he could have a number of contributors as the season played out.
The bad news Sunday is that Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor — the two rookie starters — shot a combined 2 of 15 from the field. But it has to be encouraging that other freshmen made a difference. Big man Jeremy Olsen came off the bench to score 12 points and grab six rebounds. Small forward Dakari Tucker hit two gargantuan 3-pointers that fueled the rally. In the final five minutes, Utah went almost exclusively with three freshmen on the floor.
“Coach tells us that we have to be ready and that we have to contribute when called on,” Tucker said. “It’s something that he’s always been telling us all season.”
Utah sorely struggled to score for long stretches of the game. The Utes lost the rebounding battle. They had 15 turnovers and shot 39 percent overall. It’s difficult to win with numbers like that, and indeed Utah’s largest deficit peaked at 43-30 with 17 minutes remaining. A blowout seemed inevitable while the crowd shifted restlessly.
Then, the Utes began to rally, with Olsen and Jarred DuBois providing much of the damage. Junior guard Glen Dean came off the bench to hand out a team-high five assists. Jason Washburn scored the bulk of his 15 points after halftime. Down 49-39, Utah went on a 12-2 run to tie things at 51-51. The Huntsman Center was rocking. A landmark victory seemed entirely possible.
That led to the turning point.
Down 53-51, Washburn appeared to get fouled on a point-blank layup, but there was no call. Arizona star point guard Mark Lyons then raced the other way, scored and was fouled. The three-point play supplied the Wildcats with a 56-51 advantage and Utah never pulled even again.
“When you’re in a close game, guys have to step up and make shots like we did the last game,” Washburn said. “We just couldn’t do that this game. We had a couple of calls that didn’t go our way and we didn’t step up and hit shots when we really needed to make them. It’s a simple game.”
on twitter: @tjonessltrib
No. 9 Arizona 68, Utah 64
• Utah loses to Arizona for the second time this season
• The Utes use a 21-8 run to rally from a 13 point deficit
• Arizona guard Mark Lyons scores a game-high 18 points.