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How the Runnin’ Utes lost their sixth straight Pac-12 game in heartbreaking fashion

Arizona State’s Jalen Graham hits a floater in the lane with four seconds remaining to lift Sun Devils to a 64-62 win over the struggling Utes

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Utah guard David Jenkins Jr., wearing red, drives against Arizona State guard Marreon Jackson

Utah guard David Jenkins Jr. (1) drives against Arizona State guard Marreon Jackson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

When you have as thin of a margin for error as this University of Utah men’s basketball team does this season in new coach Craig Smith’s inaugural year on the hill, you have to do all the little things right to pull out Pac-12 victories.

That didn’t happen Monday afternoon in front of 6,482 fans at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Arizona, and as a result the Runnin’ Utes lost a heartbreaker 64-62 to one of the league’s other bottom-tier teams, the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Utah (8-10, 1-7) suffered its sixth-straight loss when ASU’s Jalen Graham hit a floater in the lane with four seconds remaining to break a tie in the perky-jerky slugfest that never saw either struggling team lead by more than six points.

“It is really hard to win in the Pac-12. Our margin for error is relatively slim, but we gave ourselves some chances tonight. We just couldn’t pull it off.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

Out of timeouts, the Runnin’ Utes raced up the court after Graham’s fifth field goal, but guard David Jenkins’ desperation attempt was deflected by Jay Heath. Arizona State, which couldn’t host the Utes last Thursday as scheduled due to COVID-19 issues within the program, improved to 6-9 overall, 2-3 in Pac-12 play, by winning the makeup game.

“It is really hard to win in the Pac-12,” Smith said. “Our margin for error is relatively slim, but we gave ourselves some chances tonight. We just couldn’t pull it off.”

Utah played its third game in a row without 7-footer Branden Carlson, out for probably another week after having an appendectomy on January 8, and his presence was sorely missed — especially on that final ASU possession.

David Jenkins Jr., playing his best game in quite some time, hit a shot with 26 seconds remaining to tie the game at 62-62. The UNLV transfer led the Utes with 14 points, while Rollie Worster — wearing the No. 40 because his No. 25 jersey was ripped in the first half of the physical game — added 13 and Dusan Mahorcic 12.

After a timeout, Graham shot the ball over Utah’s 6-10 Mahorcic from about eight feet out.

“Obviously, we were a little bit undersized at the four and the five, giving up 36 points in the paint, and that is a hard thing to overcome,” Smith said. “…. (Graham) hit that little rhythm floater. He just shoots it right over us, so you gotta give them credit. They made some plays down the stretch.”

The Sun Devils scored on their last four possessions, and seven of their last nine. The 6-9 Graham sandwiched a dunk and a sweeping hook around Marreon Jackson’s 3-pointer and then added the game-winner in the final two minutes and 20 seconds.

“Obviously, we miss Branden on both ends of the floor. He’s a great player,” Worster said. “… We could have made a play, or defended it better. But I wouldn’t say that is our mindset. I think we got the guys needed to win. But yeah, we miss Branden for sure.”

Smith said he will be surprised if Carlson, Utah’s leading scorer, returns this week when the Utes host UCLA on Thursday and USC on Saturday, but hasn’t been told one way or another by Utah’s head athletic trainer.

Like Smith and Worster mentioned, it wouldn’t have come down to Graham’s late heroics if the Utes had done some of the little things better — like box out on missed free throws.

Twice in the final seven minutes the Sun Devils scored after missing the front end of one-and-ones, baskets that were huge in what was mostly a one-possession game in the second half.

“Yeah, they are huge. They end up, towards the end of the game, adding up,” Worster said. “And when you give up plays up like that, or give extra second-chances, that hurts. They capitalized on plays like that and we just gotta learn from it and continue to get better as a team.”

Utah was also the benefactor of offensive rebounds, such as the time Worster hit a 3-pointer to give the Utes a 53-51 lead with 5:15 remaining. On Utah’s next possession, Jenkins Jr. banked in a 3-pointer, and it appeared this might be Utah’s day.

A couple of calls didn’t go Utah’s way at crunch time, calls that were lamented briefly by Smith in his postgame comments.

Jenkins was whistled for kicking his foot out while attempting a 3-pointer with just under four minutes left, and Mahorcic was hit with an offensive foul while scoring a layup because officials ruled he cleared out with his off hand.

Mahorcic “certainly had, probably, 30, 40 pounds on the guy, and I thought he made a great move to go up five, and it was unfortunate, we got the offensive foul,” Smith said.

Had Arizona State lost, it would have been lamented some horrible free-throw shooting. The Sun Devils made just three of 12 freebies, while Utah was 17 of 20 from the line.

Smith described a somber Utes locker room after the loss, but said nobody is losing their “spirit” as the losses mount. Utah hasn’t lost six straight games since their first season (2011-12) in the Pac-12, when they had a couple eight-game losing skids.

“Obviously everybody hates to lose. It is a tough loss, especially that close. We did have every opportunity. We did a lot of good things late, but just ended up (losing),” Worster said. “We didn’t get stops late, didn’t get some free throw box-outs during the second half. It was a tough pill to swallow, but we just gotta keep going.”

Especially when there is no margin for error.