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Ute stars go dark, Gonzaga shoots out the lights

DENVER – It wasn't like in 2011, when Larry Krystkowiak was inheriting a lifeless Utah basketball program. It only looked that way for a couple of hours.

The Utes played the part of downtrodden underdogs and the Gonzaga Bulldogs played the part of, well, big dogs. The non-football school up north is still showing bigger schools how it's done.

Saturday at the Pepsi Center, the Utes bowed out of the NCAA tournament with a meek 82-59 loss to the West Coast Conference's best team. It wasn't exactly a shocker, even though the Bulldogs were only an 11th-seeded team this year and the Utes a No. 3. Gonzaga has been in the NCAA tournament 18 consecutive seasons.

Seedings and rankings don't much matter to the Zags. They've beaten bigger teams, under more stressful circumstances than this. So they go on to meet either Middle Tennessee or Syracuse in the Sweet 16, while the Utes go home to address life without some of their biggest stars.

"I"ve never been too caught up in seeding. And at this point, the seeds do go out the window," Krystkowak said. "I know Gonzaga's a really good team. I would never put a number on them. I wouldn't be surprised if they were in the Final Four."

The Utes took their loss hard – as they should have. First man out of the locker room was Kyle Kuzma, eyes wet. Same for Brandon Taylor. Right behind them was Kyrstkowiak, who couldn't keep his emotions hidden, either.

In the locker room, players hugged one another, several sobbing. Jakob Poeltl, almost certainly bound for the NBA, was momentarily unable to speak to reporters. He waved them off until he had regained composure.

"I think we had a really successful season," Poeltl said. "We had a couple games didn't end how we wanted them to end. That's just how basketball goes."

Although the departures of seniors Jordan Loveridge, Dakarai Tucker and Brandon Taylor – and probably Poeltl – can't be minimized, it was hard to prove that for much of the game. Gonzaga owned the beginning, middle and end, building a 30-point lead.

Should the Utes be embarrassed? Yes. As for the season, it was far from an embarrassment. They went some high places in the year after losing Delon Wright to the NBA, rising to No. 12 in the rankings and finishing second in the conference.

Krystkowiak told his players on Sunday that he needed his best players to do well in the tournament. But with 14 minutes remaining on Saturday, Loveridge and Taylor were scoreless, while Poeltl had just five points and three rebounds.

The Utes had planned to double the Zags' big men and try to limit the outside scoring.

"We just had to pick our poison and it hurt us tonight," Loveridge said.

Gonzaga shot 56 percent for the game, 47 percent from 3-point range.

As they say in Spokane, it's not the size of the dog in the fight ...

Inexplicably, Utah's own big dogs didn't get it done. Poeltl finished with five points and four rebounds, Taylor seven points and Loveridge zero.

It took no time at all for Gonzaga to put the Utes on their heels. They made eight first-half 3-pointers. Meanwhile, the Utes were again troubled by turnovers, committing nine in the first half. That came after back-to-back 20-turnover games.

It's not like the Ute coach hasn't tried to address the problem.

"Without being Captain Obvious, if you don't turn it over, you become a heck of a lot more efficient," said Captain Obvious on Thursday.

Poeltl, who tweaked his ankle, picked up his second foul with 6:38 left in the first half, earning him a spot on the bench.

"We just didn't end up making enough shots and they shot lights out," Taylor said.

Sometimes it's a simple game.

"I don't think any of us pictured it like this," Taylor added.

"You know, that's sports," Krystkowiak said. "A one-game series."

A game that, in reality, was really never a game.

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