Utah did a slightly better job of converting possessions into points Saturday at Kentucky, as long as the Utes held onto the basketball long enough to attempt a shot.
But that didn’t happen nearly often enough in an 88-61 loss to the No. 19 Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Utah (4-5) was charged with 18 turnovers and Kentucky turned them into 34 points. The Wildcats (8-2) had only six turnovers and were led by freshman guard Keldon Johnson with 24 points.
Freshman guard Both Gach led the Utes with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting and Jayce Johnson added 11 points. But the team’s offensive production dropped off markedly from there. Senior guard Sedrick Barefield and sophomore forward Donnie Tillman, the team’s top two scorers this season, combined for seven points on 2-of-13 shooting. The Utes have totaled 120 points in their last two games, including a 74-59 loss to BYU last weekend, and their problems with turnovers far overshadowed a 31-23 rebounding advantage.
The 27-point margin of defeat topped Utah’s 22-point loss to Northwestern in a November tournament at Fullerton, Calif.
Utah’s trip to Kentucky is part of a two-year package that includes a game in Las Vegas next December and was designed to enhance the Utes’ NCAA Tournament credentials. Coach Larry Krystkowiak’s scheduling strategy challenged his team to come together quickly this season, and that clearly hasn’t happened.
“Guys have to play with a little more confidence,” Utah assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum told the Utes Sports Network in a postgame interview, explaining the turnover issue. “You cannot turn it over, or else they’re going to finish with two [points] on the other end.”
Or three, in too many cases. The Wildcats, not known for their 3-point shooting ability, went 12 of 21 from that range. Johnson was 6 of 7 on 3-pointers, taking advantage of the Utes’ being preoccupied with forward Reid Travis, Slocum said.
Utah knew all about Travis, who scored 16 points, because they faced the graduate transfer during his three years at Stanford. Guard Tyler Herro scored 17, including a 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats a 41-27 halftime lead.
Even after that deflating shot, the Utes got within 57-47 after Parker Van Dyke’s 3-pointer and Timmy Allen’s dunk with 11:52 remaining. But they failed to score over the next five minutes, while losing four turnovers. Kentucky pulled away with a 13-0 run.
In his postgame radio interview, Gach attributed Utah’s turnover troubles to “guys playing too fast.”
The Utes started the game quickly, with Gach scoring eight points as Utah took a 10-2 lead. Kentucky soon surged ahead, though.
Utah certainly failed to maximize a schedule that had the Utes playing only on Saturdays during the past three weeks, as the team showed only occasional signs of offensive improvement.
The Utes will have a three-game homestand to end their nonconference schedule, before opening Pac-12 play Jan. 3 at Arizona State. Utah meets Florida A&M on Monday and Northern Arizona on Friday, followed by No. 7 Nevada’s visit Dec. 29.
• Utah goes five-plus minutes without scoring in the second half of an 88-61 loss at No. 19 Kentucky.
• Freshman guard Both Gach scores 22 points for the Utes on 8-of-10 shooting.
• The Utes will host Florida A&M on Monday at the Huntsman Center.