Utah guard Justin Bibbins crouched at mid-court with his hands on his head in disbelief, after the ball somehow went deep into the basket and back out Sunday night.
Bibbins’ would-be winning shot in the final five seconds of an 80-77 loss to Arizona State ended the Utes’ wild adventure in the first two weeks of Pac-12 play, with two wins on the road and two losses at the Huntsman Center.
The latest defeat’s effect? “Just numbing,” Bibbins said.
So what are we supposed to think about this team now? The Utes (10-5) need to go something like 12-6 in the Pac-12 with a couple of big-time wins to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Beating the Sun Devils would have helped them in multiple ways.
Losing to No. 14 Arizona and No. 4 ASU, as of the most recent AP rankings, is hardly shameful. But explain this: Colorado swept the Arizona schools after losing to Oregon and Oregon State, the teams Utah beat to begin conference play.
“It’s going to be a crazy league,” Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
And this was a crazy game. The ending is the obvious place to start, with the Utes down by two points and Bibbins’ 3-point try from a slight right angle looking awfully good in flight. “I just couldn’t believe it came out,” Bibbins said.
The home crowd collectively gasped after witnessing the basketball’s in-and-out journey, and the sight was “quite a bit more heartbreaking for me,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s no feeling in the world like when it goes in, and there’s no feeling in the world like it when it comes out.”
Coaches never think only of the last shot, of course. Krystkowiak pointed to Arizona State’s spurts in each half, triggered by Utah’s turnovers and lack of rebounding. Those problems kept the Utes from ever leading by more than three points. ASU always had answers.
All the Sun Devils needed to do in an effort to top the offensive production of their most recent visit was have Shannon Evans II hit a 3-pointer on ASU’s first possession.
In February 2016, late in coach Bobby Hurley’s first season, the Sun Devils came to town and trailed Utah 30-2 — taking nearly 15 minutes to score their third point. The Utes led 44-10 at halftime that night, in contrast to ASU’s 10-2 edge before the first media timeout Sunday.
It was 19-8 less than nine minutes into this game, after the Sun Devils needed almost 30 minutes to score that many points two years ago. Star guard Tra Holder, now a senior, went scoreless with nine turnovers in 2016, while Kodi Justice’s 3-of-9 shooting was just good enough to elevate ASUs field-goal shooting to 25 percent.
In this episode, Justice scored 20 points to support Evans’ 20. Bibbins’ 22-point night for Utah included 12 free throws; Sedrick Barefield scored 21, but he missed two good looks late in the game.
After the Utes rallied to take a 36-35 halftime edge, the second half featured 10 lead changes in a six-minute stretch, starting when David Collette’s inside bucket sent Utah ahead 54-53. Collette’s personal six-point run came after he had the breath knocked out of him in a loose-ball scramble. Later, he absorbed an ASU charge and scored via a three-point play and another layup, tying the game in each case.
But then Collette was called for a blocking foul (his fifth) with 21.7 seconds remaining. The call appeared correct, and the Utes couldn’t complain on a night when they attempted 36 free throws and three Sun Devils fouled out. Mickey Mitchell’s free throws sent ASU ahead by two.
Then came Bibbins’ miss, with the ball knocked out of bounds. During a lengthy officials’ review, Krystkowiak drew up an in-bounds play that he never got to use. ASU kept possession, made one more free throw and escaped with a win after going 12-0 in nonconference play and then losing at Arizona and Colorado.
ASU really needed this game. So did Utah. Two more months of this madness loom ahead.