After beating Arizona State in its own arena, the Utes got greedy. They could smell an even bigger upset cooking. Instead, the Utes came away from splitting road games against Arizona and Arizona State with a bitter taste in their mouths and a somewhat empty feeling.
Earlier this month in Salt Lake City, the Utes faded down the stretch against Arizona and a tie game turned into a 12-point loss in the final four minutes. Coming off of a win against the 21st-ranked Sun Devils this time around, the Utes didn’t fade. They stood up to the Pac-12 Conference’s big bad bully and had a chance to win with 4.3 seconds remaining.
The week’s obvious signs of progress — the win at ASU, Sedrick Barefield’s resurgence and slugging it out down to the last second with a team viewed as a national contender — were all tempered by the feeling that they let a big one get away.
Donnie Tillman’s layup attempt in traffic didn’t go in at the Arizona game, and no foul call came. The Utes fell short of rallying from 13 points down in the second-half deficit to defeat the 11th-ranked Wildcats to give them what would’ve been just their second conference loss of the season. The Wildcats came away with a 74-73 win.
“The Arizona State game was great,” Utes senior forward David Collette said. “Obviously, we fought hard. We fought hard the second half of this game [against Arizona]. What’s disappointing to me is looking at the first half, getting down to the big deficit early and making some stupid mistakes. If we could just put together a full game like we did in the second half, we’d probably beat them by 10.”
The Utes (13-8, 5-5) forced almost twice as many turnovers as they committed (15 compared to eight) in Saturday’s game, outscored the Wildcats by nine points in the second half and shot 50 percent from the field after halftime.
Thursday, the Utes scratched out a win despite having Justin Bibbins fouled out and seated on the sideline in the crucial closing moments of regulation and throughout overtime. Down four with nine seconds left against the Wildcats on Saturday, they created a chance to win.
“Our guys are realizing that if we bring an effort and play hard, we have a chance,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said following Saturday’s loss. “We managed to make enough shots, made it interesting getting back in it. This was a heck of a game. This whole weekend was two really good basketball games. It’s unfortunate that anybody has to lose it.”
The biggest long-term takeaway for the Utes might be the play of Barefield. One of the heroes of Thursday’s game, Barefield had perhaps his best game of the season on Saturday. The junior guard scored 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting, made all eight of his free-throw attempts and attacked the paint throughout the game. Mired in a shooting slump most of this season, Barefield worked inside-out and only attempted four 3-pointers (2 of 4), with his first three scoring chances coming in the paint.
The Utes have now surpassed the half-way point of conference play and sat in the middle of the pack in sixth place after Saturday’s game. They’ve got eight remaining Pac-12 games with five games remaining in the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
“I think took away [from this week] that we’re definitely getting better,” Tillman said. “Defensively as a team, we’re putting it together. We’re all healthy, and we’re just going to try to get some big wins. We got Arizona State. Could’ve had Arizona. Let’s finish out the rest this Pac-12 league [schedule], and let’s have a winning record.”