Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and Ute athletic administrators did everything they could in an effort to make the Utes’ road success in the Pac-12 translate into victories at the Huntsman Center.
The strategy was not fully successful.
Wearing their traditional road uniforms at home and spending the night between games in a hotel, the Utes failed to complete a weekend sweep Saturday night. Arizona State allowed the game’s first basket, then never trailed in the last 38 minutes of a 98-87 victory that knocked Utah out of second place in the Pac-12.
The Utes are 14-11, 8-5 in the conference. They’re tied for third with ASU, a half-game behind Oregon State.
If the Utes fall short of a top-four seed in next month’s Pac-12 tournament, their lack of home-court protection will be the biggest reason why. And Krystkowiak believed the latest loss was his own team’s fault.
“I though they played harder than we did, which is a shame,” he said.
The giant signs in the adjacent Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility remind the Utes to “play hard,” “play smart” and “play together.” In that context, “I think [ASU] got all the checkmarks,” Krystkowiak said.
The Utes staged “Red Out” and “Black Out” promotions this week, with the partial benefit of wearing dark-colored uniforms at home. The red look worked nicely in Thursday’s 83-76 defeat of Arizona, but the black apparel failed them Saturday. Krystkowiak’s strategy of having the team stay in a hotel Friday night to simulate a road trip also failed.
Krystkowiak labeled his team’s defense against ASU “piss-poor, for the most part,” later softening his description to “porous.”
Both assessments were accurate.
Utah now is 5-1 on the road in conference play and 3-4 at home. “We know what we need to do to be successful,” Parker Van Dyke said of the Utes’ inconsistency. “We just need to do it.”
Van Dyke scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half for Utah; Sedrick Barefield also scored 17 and reached 1,000 points for his three-year career, despite another rough shooting night.
ASU guard Rob Edwards scored 28 points and forward Zylan Cheatham added 24.
Going into the week’s schedule, Van Dyke had said the Utes needed to “bring this road mentality, where there is nothing to lose, into these home games.”
The senior guard believed his team played too tentatively in recent home losses to Oregon and Oregon State. The different approach certainly worked for him against Arizona, and he scored a career-high 23 points. And the Utes pulled from the Wildcats midway through the second half, building a 16-point lead.
Against the Sun Devils, the Utes trailed by 13 points midway through the first half before cutting ASU’s lead to 47-42 at halftime.
Luguentz Dort and Edwards each scored 15 points for the Sun Devils, who made eight 3-pointers. Van Dyke’s 15 gave him 53 points in his last four halves of basketball. Barefield missed his first six shots Saturday, making him 4 of 20 for the week, before he finished the half with seven points.
The pattern was not unlike what happened in the teams’ first meeting, when the Sun Devils led by 17 in the first half before settling for a four-point halftime edge.
In that case, the Utes stormed ahead as the second half began, eventually leading by 12 points in a 96-86 victory to launch Pac-12 play.
This time, ASU rebuilt its lead to 13 points in the first six minutes of the half and the Utes never recovered. They got no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
The Sun Devils were desperate Saturday, having fallen to fourth place in the Pac-12 after Wednesday’s 77-73 loss at Colorado. ASU remained just inside the NCAA Tournament field in ESPN’s Bracketology, but another loss to the Utes likely would have altered that status.
Utah’s regular-season goals are more modest. The Utes are targeting a top-four finish in the conference. That goal became more difficult to achieve after Saturday’s showing.