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Deja vu: How the Runnin’ Utes lost another heartbreaker to Arizona State

Marreon Jackson’s driving layup with 6 seconds remaining lifts ASU to a 63-61 win over Utah at the Huntsman Center Saturday night

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Arizona State Sun Devils guard Jay Heath (5) tries to regain the ball as Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (25) slaps it away as Utah and Arizona State play an NCAA basketball game in the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Arizona State won 63-61.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A good portion of the 8,940 fans who witnessed visiting Arizona State knock off the Runnin’ Utes 63-61 at the Huntsman Center on Saturday night will remember how their team gave up a layup with six seconds left to lose another heartbreaker in a season full of them.

They will also lament the last-second shot by sophomore guard Rollie Worster from the baseline about 15 feet out that had a chance to force overtime but didn’t fall.

But coach Craig Smith will stew the rest of the weekend over how his team played in the middle 20 minutes, an uneven and uninspiring performance to end the first half and start the second that allowed the Sun Devils to get out to a 14-point lead before the Utes unleashed a ferocious full-court defense and got back in it.

“We didn’t execute what we call our vertical defense, and we forced them the wrong way. BC was on one side and we forced them the wrong way, and they get a layup and obviously Rollie (Worster) has the one rim out (at the buzzer).” — Utah coach Craig Smith on the final few seconds of the 63-61 loss to Arizona State.

“That is where we lost the game,” said senior guard Marco Anthony, who led the Utes with 19 points, including a dunk after a nifty assist from Branden Carlson that knotted the game 61-61 with 28 seconds left.

Utah fell to 11-18 overall and 4-15 in Pac-12 play while losing in almost the same fashion as it lost to ASU (12-16, 8-10) last month in Tempe, Arizona.

That time, Jalen Graham hit a 12-foot floater with four seconds left to give ASU a 64-62 win. This time, Marreon Jackson did the honors, breaking free for a relatively uncontested basket to complete a 2 for 9 night.

“That was unacceptable, that last play on defense,” Smith said.

Utah had a timeout left, but Smith says the Utes practice taking the ball out of the net and racing downcourt in those situations, in hopes of catching the opponent celebrating and off guard.

Worster had the ball near the Utah bench and got free enough to get something off, but it caromed out and the Sun Devils, who have won five of their last six games, could celebrate the sweep, both of the Utes and their Mountain road trip, having crushed Colorado on Thursday in Boulder.

“We just looked different this weekend than we did last weekend,” Smith said, noting how the Utes swept the Bay Area schools for their modest two-game winning streak only to take a step backwards the second-to-last weekend of the season.

Utah fell 97-77 to No. 2 Arizona here Thursday, the same Arizona team that went to Colorado and was upset by the Buffaloes Saturday night.

“It’s hard to win games in the Pac-12,” Smith said for about the 10th time this season.

That’s especially true when you don’t play a full 40 minutes, which is what led to Utah’s downfall on a night when half of the curtains in the upper bowl (on the south side) were pulled up to allow more seating.

“We weren’t very good in the middle of the game,” Smith said.

Neither team led by more than four in the first half, which featured eight ties and four lead changes.

Utah shot 48% to ASU’s 42% in the first half but trailed by three at the break due to six turnovers, including a couple of the “catastrophic” variety, in Smith’s words.

Lazar Stefanovic and Both Gach provided the first-half highlights for the Utes, Stefanovic making an ankle-breaking move on Luther Muhammad before stepping back and hitting a 3-pointer, and Gach slashing to the hole and scooping the ball in with an up and under move to avoid a defender.

Arizona State made its first four shots of the second half, and later put together an 11-1 run to go up 52-38 with 11 minutes remaining.

Gabe Madsen and David Jenkins Jr. hit 3-pointers to get Utah back in it, only to watch Jay Heath do the same on the other end.

Heath led ASU with 20 points but missed three free-throws in the last nine minutes that partially allowed Utah’s comeback.

“We really challenged our guys in a major way at halftime,” Smith said.

Utah’s full-court pressure caused ASU to cough up the ball or get too sped up in the last 10 minutes, and the Utes battled back.

Why don’t the Utes, who have used the pressure effectively in past games — against Oregon, for instance — press more often?

“It is hard to consistently do that against good teams,” Smith said.

Carlson was phenomenal for the Utes down the stretch, making a reverse layup to cut the deficit to 59-54 and then a 3-pointer with 1:14 left to tie it at 59-59.

After Carlson’s swish from deep, Graham (the hero in Tempe) hit two free throws with 48 seconds left to help ASU regain the lead.

With 28 seconds left, Carlson dumped the ball off to Anthony while being double-teamed, and Anthony’s dunk tied it with 28 seconds left.

That’s when Jackson shook free for the game-winner.

“We didn’t execute what we call our vertical defense, and we forced them the wrong way,” Smith said. “BC was on one side and we forced them the wrong way, and they get a layup and obviously Rollie has the one rim out.”

The Utes made 8 of their first 12 shots in the first half before cooling off a bit. Anthony led the way, going 5 of 7 for 11 points.

“I thought we really settled in the first half for easy shots, quick shots, specifically after Marco semi-stopped scoring,” Smith said.

Utah, now in 11th place in the Pac-12 standings, doesn’t play again until Saturday when it hosts Colorado at the Huntsman Center on Senior Night.