The University of Utah basketball team is in a bad place right now.
Losers of three of four entering Thursday night, the Utes coughed up a 14-point second-half lead against the University of Washington, looking lost for long stretches in falling, 74-68, in front of 6,964 at the Huntsman Center.
Utah put five players in double figures, but Both Gach and David Jenkins Jr., two of the team’s three leading scorers, went scoreless. Jenkins Jr. played 17 minutes, while Gach played just nine.
“I just thought we got really tentative and not in attack mode,” Utah head coach Craig Smith said. “We lost or aggression, and they ended the game scoring on 16 of the last 20 possessions, I believe. We have to be a lot better closing out games.”
That 14-point lead turned into stagnation on the offensive end, and Terrell Brown Jr., the Pac-12′s leading scorer, getting it going on the other end for Washington after a slow start.
A Cole Bajema 3-pointer from the left baseline after Utah (8-7, 1-4 Pac-12) dropped into a zone gave Washington a 62-59 lead with 5:37 to go. After a Utah turnover, and with the Utes back to playing defense straight up, Brown Jr. drove, drew the defense and kicked the ball to Emmitt Matthews Jr., who knocked down a triple from the left wing for a six-point lead, prompting a Smith timeout.
Out of that stoppage, Washington (6-6, 1-1 Pac-12) turned Utah over again, eventually getting another 3-pointer from Matthews Jr., this one from the left baseline to make 68-59. In what has turned into a recent problem, Utah turned the ball over 19 times. This, after a combined 35 turnovers at Oregon State and Oregon last week.
The Utes got back to within three, but Matthews Jr. knocked down a pair of free throws with 43 seconds left to ice a seemingly-unlikely win.
“I think it’s a lot about focus, and our presence, and being ready to play,” freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic said of the turnover woes after scoring 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting in 30 minutes. “Being ready to play 40 minutes. Not 30, not 35, being ready to play a whole game. We have to take care of the ball, we have to be in the game. That’s the biggest thing.”
The early going of this game featured Washington unleashing a 2-3 zone in which the wings extended out and a defender dropping down in order to clog up the high post. That tactic proved effective for a while, but a wholesale lineup change by Smith changed the tone of the game.
Among those checking in was 6-foot-10 forward Dusan Mahorcic, seeing his first action since injuring his right knee against BYU on Nov. 27. Mahorcic only played five minutes in the first half, but he made them count.
Against the zone, Mahorcic whipped a pass inside to a cutting Jaxon Brenchley, who finished at the rim, plus the foul, to give Utah a 20-18 lead. Mahorcic knocked down a 6-foot hook along the baseline a short time later and at that point, the Utes had control.
A rough shooting start gave way to Utah finding some clean looks. Second-year freshman guard Gabe Madsen knocked down his third 3-pointer of the half, this one from the right wing, to extend the Utes to a 34-28 lead. That advantage reached as many as seven, but a frontcourt turnover in the closing seconds yielded a Washington triple from Bajema at the buzzer, sending the Huskies to the locker room trailing, 37-33.