Reasonable observers of Utah basketball have to be willing to admit two things to themselves.
One, given how young and inexperienced the Utes are, getting a split of a two-game, four-day neutral-site trip against No. 6 Kentucky and No. 20 San Diego State should qualify as a positive, no matter how they got it. Two, after beating the Wildcats on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, the Utes cranking it back up for the Aztecs on Saturday was a tough ask.
Utah registered a seismic win against the Wildcats on Wednesday, then fell victim Saturday to an aggressive early tone, which it never matched. San Diego State, one of four unbeaten teams nationwide entering Saturday, hit five of its first six shots and seven of their first 10. It rode that, plus a sturdy 40-minute defensive effort to an 80-52 win over the Utes at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Sophomore guard Timmy Allen scored a game-high 21 points, but shot just 6 for 14 as Utah never found its offensive footing. Despite that, it trailed by just 10 at halftime, 29-19, after a torrid early pace slowed down for both sides.
Both Gach’s 3-pointer from the right baseline got the Utes to within eight with 17:52 to play, but they got no closer.
Up 11 a short time later, Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn, the Aztecs’ leading scorer, knocked down a long 3-pointer from the left wing with a hand in his face. San Diego State got a stop down at the other end, then Jordan Schakel hit a triple of his own from the left wing to extend the lead to 17 with 12:46 to play.
Flynn led three Aztecs in double figures with 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting. While Flynn did his damage from the perimeter, San Diego State had 42 points in the paint, and was plus-8 on the glass against what has been a solid rebounding team in Utah.
At 12-0, San Diego State has a good chance at being 14-0 when it plays Utah State on Jan. 4 in Logan for early control of the Mountain West. The Aztecs host Cal Poly on Dec. 28 and Fresno State on New Year’s Day.
Utah’s split of this road trip closes the nonconference portion of its schedule at 9-3, which is better than anyone forecast. The Utes have four Quadrant 2 wins, including Kentucky and BYU earlier this month, while Saturday represented their first Quadrant 1 opportunity, but more are on the horizon.
The Utes are off for 12 days in the middle a rugged stretch of opponents. Pac-12 play begins Jan. 2 with Oregon State and Jan. 4 against No. 8 Oregon, both at the Huntsman Center. After another eight days off, Utah is at Colorado (Jan. 12), at Arizona (Jan. 16) and at Arizona State (Jan. 18).
• Utah has its five-game winning streak snapped, falling to No. 20 San Diego State 80-52, just 72 hours after it toppled No. 6 Kentucky.
• The Utes register just 15 made field goals in shooting 31.3 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range.
•Utah finishes the nonconference portion of its schedule 9-3. That includes wins over Kentucky, BYU, Minnesota and Nevada, but also losses to Coastal Carolina and Tulane.