How the Runnin’ Utes blew a 14-point lead in the second half and lost at home to the Washington Huskies
Utah’s basketball team continues to have too much of the Christmas spirit, giving away another Pac-12 game with 19 turnovers at the Huntsman Center
Something has happened to the University of Utah men’s basketball team since it took a few days off for the Christmas break. The Runnin’ Utes apparently decided it is better to give than to receive.
They were certainly in a giving mood Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 6,964 at the Huntsman Center, handing over a game they had well in hand to the Washington Huskies. Blowing a 14-point lead six minutes into the second half, the Utes fell 74-68 in what will easily go down as the most disappointing loss of new coach Craig Smith’s first season to date.
“Congrats to Washington, that was a heckuva comeback by them,” a dejected Smith said to open his postgame news conference. “I am really disappointed.”
“(Coach Smith) said we gotta figure things out. The same things keep happening. We are on a three-game losing streak, and it is pretty much the same thing — it is defense and turnovers. We gotta take care of the ball and we gotta eliminate losing, and we are not doing that in the last couple of games.” — Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic
For the third straight game since the break, all Pac-12 games, the Utes (8-7, 1-4) turned the ball over far too many times and it ended up costing them a chance to win. They had 19 giveaways, after having 20 in the loss at Oregon State a week ago and 15 in the loss to Oregon last Saturday.
But Washington (6-6, 1-1) which lost 95-79 to Arizona in Tucson on Monday, is not of the caliber of the Beavers or Ducks. Not yet, anyway. That’s what made Thursday’s loss so devastating for the Utes. That, and the fact that they led 50-36 and had the ball with under 14 minutes to play and couldn’t close the deal.
“Obviously, turnovers were a major, major issue for us,” Smith said.
He especially lamented one at the end of the first half when the Utes had the ball and a 37-30 lead. They coughed it up, and Washington’s Cole Bajema, a 15% 3-pointer shooter, made them pay, nailing a triple to beat the buzzer and send the visitors to the locker room down just 37-33, when it easily could have been worse.
Bajema kept it up in the second half, finishing with five 3-pointers and a career- and season-high 15 points.
“That kid had a heckuva game tonight,” Smith said, pronouncing Bajema’s name and reading his stat line as if he had never heard of the guy. “They made some big plays down the stretch.”
And Utah did not.
Just as in the losses to the Oregon schools, the Utes couldn’t find a go-to guy down the stretch when they really needed a bucket.
Such a player doesn’t seem to exist, as of now. Gabe Madsen, Branden Carlson and Lazar Stefanovic all had 12 points, and Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster added 10 apiece. Balanced scoring was there, a closer was not.
“Obviously we didn’t finish strong on the offensive end with 14 points in the last whatever (10 minutes),” Smith said. “But even with that, the (stats are favorable, besides turnovers). We gotta find a way to finish those games. We gotta take care of the ball much better.”
Meanwhile, Washington — which is one of the best teams in the country at coming up with steals — kept the pressure on. Washington had 13 steals, the Utes had zero.
Bajema got the comeback started with a triple with 13:23 left. The Huskies would go on to score in 15 of their final 20 possessions.
The Utes had bottled up leading scorer Terrell Brown Jr. (22.1 ppg) to that point, but defensive ace Anthony was taken out for a breather and Brown heated up. He finished with 15 on 7 of 16 shooting, but eight of those came in that crucial stretch after Bajema’s bomb.
Daejon Davis also hit a big 3-pointer during that 32-9 run and led the Huskies with 16; Jamal Bey added 14.
A team that was averaging 5.3 3-pointers a game finished with 10. They were 6 of 10 from 3-point range in the second half, and some of those treys were on wide-open shots.
“They started gaining a little mojo and (Brown) started making play after play,” Smith said. “Credit to him, too. He made a couple big-time passes in there as well.”
The deficit at nine after Emmitt Matthews Jr. hit a 3-pointer to give UW a 68-59 lead, the Utes mounted a mild comeback of their own in the final four minutes. They went on a 6-0 run, fueled by offensive rebounding, to get within three.
But Matthews drove past Carlson, and got the whistle when it appeared he lost the ball on his own. His free throws, and four from Bey, allowed the Huskies to get their biggest win of the year, and first against a Power Five team.
Utah has now lost four of its last five.
“It is always hard to talk after a game like this,” Stefanovic said. “We will definitely watch the video and talk more about it when we see more. But (Smith) just said we gotta figure things out. The same things keep happening. We are on a three-game losing streak, and it is pretty much the same thing — it is defense and turnovers.
“We gotta take care of the ball and we gotta eliminate losing, and we are not doing that in the last couple of games.”
Anthony, who played a team-high 35 minutes, said the injury bug that hampered the Utes in December has turned into the turnover bug.
“It is something we gotta overcome,” he said. “We need to get it fixed sooner than later, especially if we want to be on top of the league.”
The Runnin’ Utes play host to Washington State (8-6), an 83-78 loser at Colorado on Thursday, at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Huntsman Center.
Stefanovic got the start, his third this season, at the shooting guard spot in place of Both Gach.
The big development in the personnel department, however, was that 6-foot-10 post player Dusan Mahorcic played for the first time since sustaining a knee injury against BYU on November 27. Mahorcic entered the game with 10:11 remaining in the first half as part of a wholesale change and immediately Utah’s offensive attack changed.
Stefanovic and Madsen hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Utes an 18-16 lead.
Utah ended up winning the rebounding battle 44-26 and scoring in the paint was a draw — 30 points for each team.
But UW scored 22 points off Utah’s turnovers, and that was the difference.
“We gotta re-establish our identity and who we are,” Smith said. “And honestly, we just gotta settle in on some players and try to (identify) that these are our guys and we are going with them.”
Early candidates probably include guys who know how to take care of the basketball.