Tucson, Ariz. • Utah guard Parker Van Dyke’s would-be winning shot rimmed out of the basket, Arizona added two free throws and the Utes trudged off the McKale Center court Saturday afternoon, wondering what they would have to do in hopes of ever winning a basketball game here.
Next stop: the Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in the Catalina Foothills, before the team bus continued to the Phoenix airport.
“Maybe I'll pick up a little trinket over there,” Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said, “and we can exorcise some of the demons that we have.”
The Utes almost took home one of the program's biggest wins of the Pac-12 era, only to have Arizona escape with an 84-81 overtime victory in a building where Utah seemingly always comes close and leaves frustrated.
Utah’s disappointment this time was less about losing than about knowing what winning would have meant. Imagine this: A team picked to finish eighth in the conference — and having looked worse than that in nonconference play — almost swept two top-tier opponents on the road to begin the Pac-12 schedule, having won Thursday at Arizona State.
The Utes would love to have had guard Sedrick Barefield (26 points) on the court for their last possessions of regulation and overtime. Barefield fouled out in the last two minutes with his team down by one point, yet the Utes gave themselves multiple chances to win.
“We had to get creative without him,” Krystkowiak said. “Our guys did a nice job of battling without him. That meant a lot to me, that we didn’t fold it up.”
Utah's first missed opportunity came in the closing seconds of regulation, when freshman forward Timmy Allen fumbled Donnie Tillman's pass out of bounds on a well-designed play. A winning assist for Tillman would have balanced last January's finish in Tucson, where the Utes wanted a foul on his last shot off an in-bounds play in a one-point defeat.
In overtime, after Van Dyke's 3-pointer kept the Utes close and Tillman's drive for a 3-point play (part of his 21-point game) gave them a brief lead, they ended up with the ball, down by one. Van Dyke had options, and he chose a good one: a 3-point attempt, almost straightaway and barely contested. As an inordinate number of his shots seem to do, this one spun out of the basket.
“In a way, it feels like I made it because it felt good so good,” Van Dyke said. “Right when it left my hands, I thought it was in.”
So did Krystkowiak and about 14,000 other people.
“I'll take that shot any day,” he said.
Van Dyke told his teammates, “I'm sorry” as he walked along the sideline after the game, but the result was the only regret any of the Utes (7-7) could have had about this effort. Naturally, there were the usual, frustrating moments for anyone accustomed to watching this team. Utah led 20-10, before defensive lapses enabled Arizona (11-4, 2-0 Pac-12) to surge ahead by continually driving into the lane and dishing for easy baskets. That's how center Chase Jeter scored 21 points; guard Brandon Randolph finished with 21.
After falling behind by six points in the second half, though, the Utes responded. They held a 68-62 lead in the last six minutes, only to have the Wildcats recover via offensive rebounds and a bunch of free throws that Tillman attributed to “home-court advantage.”
Arizona attempted 30 free throws to Utah's 13. Favorable officiating is just one reason the Wildcats are 73-10 in conference games at McKale under coach Sean Miller. Utah is 0-7 in Pac-12 play in Tucson, the irony being that the only rout (an 18-point loss) was absorbed by the Utes' best team of the decade, the Sweet 16 club of 2014-15.
Krystkowiak considers all losses equal, regardless of the margin. “When you look at the history of [Arizona's] program,” he said, “I'm not the only coach probably shaking his head, walking out of here.”
With his appreciation of Native American culture, he might be the first coach to direct the bus to the Medicine Man Gallery, after a loss to the Wildcats. Now standing 1-13 against Arizona in Pac-12 competition, the Utes can only hope Krystkowiak’s strategy takes effect in February, when the Wildcats visit the Huntsman Center.