Moraga, Calif. • Agonizingly close. There’s a phrase to appropriately summarize much of Utah’s season. The Runnin’ Utes came close to winning so many vital games in the 2013-14 season — and did win several crucial ones — but in the end, the same late-game poison that hampered the program throughout the year bit again.
But more than being agonizingly close, Utah simply had trouble possessing the energy it started the first half with Tuesday as the night wore on. In the end, the Saint Mary’s Gaels, treading water for much of the game, found life and didn’t relinquish it.
In their 2014 National Invitation Tournament first-round game at Saint Mary’s, Utah’s lead, which it had held since its 11-0 start to the game, evaporated throughout the second half of its first postseason game since 2009. Saint Mary’s took advantage of Utah’s offensive struggles, at one point rolling off a 17-0 run to end the year for the Runnin’ Utes.
"I wasn’t really prepared at this point for the end-of-year speech," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. "Obviously, it’s a disappointment for all of us."
The No. 4-seeded Gaels whisked by the No. 5 seed Utes 70-58, dominating the final 10 minutes of the game at McKeon Pavilion. Aided by several turnovers down the stretch and throughout the game — Utah finished with 20 — the Gaels leaned on unlikely heroes to bring them back to life.
"They just wanted it more than us," said Utah point guard Delon Wright, who finished with 10 points.
When stars Stephen Holt and Brad Waldow were saddled with foul trouble and injury early in the second half, Matthew Hodgson, James Walker III and Kerry Carter powered Saint Mary’s back from several double-digit deficits. Once Jordan Loveridge, who led the Utes in scoring with 16 points, knocked down a 3-pointer to give Utah a 35-25 lead early in the second half, the offense struggled to find footing.
From there on, it was a gradual and downward slide for the Utes.
And when Holt returned to the lineup with just over seven minutes to go, the senior made his mark, breathing life back into a stagnant arena. The Saint Mary’s senior scored back-to-back 3-point opportunities to spark his team back to life and within striking distance down three. But when Holt fouled out with six minutes remaining in the second half, from there Kerry Carter took over.
The junior guard hit a wide open 3-point to tie the game 50-50 with four minutes remaining and converted a steal into a layup to give Saint Mary’s its first lead of the game with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter. Moments later, Walker added two free throws, and when forward Beau Levesque hit a wide-open 3-pointer to give the Gaels a 57-50 lead, the nightmarish second half the Utes played continued on like a nightmare.
"A little bit of a perfect storm," Krystkowiak said. "It’s just tough — it’s a tough way to finish it off."
When Brandon Taylor missed a 3-point attempt that would have brought the Utes to within four, Carter’s late-game heroics continued as he drilled another shot from distance to put the Gaels on a 25-6 run. All of Carter’s eight points came in the final three minutes, and the timely long-distant shooting from Saint Mary’s and inability to score points for Utah spelled out an all-too-familiar ending for the Runnin’ Utes this year.
"Part of it is learning how to win," Krystkowiak said. "Whether we’re behind or ahead."
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