I think we showed great character at the end and we definitely didn’t lose that game at the end. I think we could have done a better job in the first half. – Jakob Poeltl
HOUSTON — Utah’s most successful season in a decade came to an end with a 63-57 loss to Duke in the Sweet 16 Friday night at NRG Stadium.
The 19th-ranked Utes finished a 26-9 campaign by giving a spirited effort against the fourth-ranked Blue Devils (32-4). They reduced a 15-point deficit with 8:41 remaining to six or less four times down the stretch.
“We definitely went down swinging,” said senior guard Delon Wright. “I think we made it a game towards the end.”
The Utes, though, could never get back over the hump after surrendering an 8-5 lead. Turnovers and shooting woes took a toll early in a game featuring just two lead changes and one tie.
“It was tough. Feel like we could have won that game,” Wright said. “You know, just one of those games that we weren’t clicking as a team.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged that the first half was poor offensively. The Utes shot just 29.6 percent from the field and missed their first nine attempts. They also had nine turnovers before halftime.
Krystkowiak said his team’s mindset and the miscues probably sealed their fate more than anything.
Senior center Dallin Bachynski, who scored all 11 of his points in the opening half, was more succinct.
“I think we all have some regrets from the game and we would like a re-do,” he said.
Utah trailed 27-22 at halftime and then pulled within three after Wright opened the second half with a jumper.
Unfortunately for the Utes, it was as close as they would get the rest of the way. Duke maintained a buffer. Justise Winslow led the Blue Devils with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
“Justise made some big-time plays and timely, timely baskets that kept us in a position where we were in control,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team will face Gonzaga in the South Regional final on Sunday.
The Utes kept star center Jahlil Okafor in check, holding the freshman to six points and eight rebounds in 32 minutes. Okafor turned the ball over four times.
“We were really good defensively,” Krystkowiak said.
Offensively, though, Utah wasn't — until the game-ending push.
“They are a really good team,” said Duke forward Amile Jefferson. “We knew at some point they were going to make a run.”
Wright noted that things just starting going Utah’s way in terms of rebounding, making stops and baskets going in. Brandon Taylor topped four Utes in double-figures with 15 points. Bachynski chipped in 11. Wright and Jakob Poeltl finished with 10 apiece.
“We knew we could play better than what we showed before that and we just (stuck) together,” Poeltl said of the late rally. “We knew the game wasn’t over and we played with energy, played hard.”
The Utes, he acknowledged, just couldn’t finish it off.
“I think we showed great character at the end and we definitely didn’t lose that game at the end,” Poeltl said. “I think we could have done a better job in the first half.”