‘We’re knocking on the door’: Runnin’ Utes push Oregon to the wire, but big comeback falls just short
Utah trimmed a 14-point deficit to one point two times in the final minute, but Ducks hang on to take an 80-77 win at the Huntsman Center
Utah guard Marco Anthony — after making a dunk on an inbounds pass that will surely go down as one of the most spectacular dunks in Runnin’ Utes basketball history — said a lot of teams would have “started thinking about the ride home” when they fell behind by 14 points with about five minutes remaining.
But these Utes aren’t just any team. You would have a hard time finding a better 9-15 team in the country, really.
Sure, surging Oregon took an 80-77 win over the Utes on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 7,756 at the Huntsman Center to hand Utah its 11th loss in its last 12 games, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of what happened on a night when former Ute Tom Chambers was honored and his No. 42 jersey hung in the rafters.
“For us, we are just going to keep fighting to the end,” Anthony said.
And them some.
“Our guys are really galvanized, quite frankly, here, and I think we are playing really connected. You don’t see a lot of selfish plays out of them. We showed up. I think they can see how much our team is improving, and we are. We are just knocking on the door on so many occasions.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
Oregon, which improved to 15-7 overall, 8-3 in Pac-12 play, took a 71-57 lead with just over five minutes left when Quincy Guerrier drained one of the Ducks’ 13 3-pointers (on 26 attempts).
Suffice it to say, the Utes weren’t thinking about the ride home.
Anthony had his highlight-reel dunk out of the timeout and the Utes (9-15, 2-12) put together a furious comeback that barely fell short. Only when seldom-used guard Eli Ballstaedt’s desperation 3-pointer from about 8 feet beyond the arc that would have tied the contest missed could the Ducks breathe easy.
“I mean, Eli is a really good shooter, and that was a pretty good look,” Smith said, noting that Ballstaedt was put in the game because he is good at pressing, and the Utes needed to set up the press after Rollie Worster made two free throws to cut the deficit to a point with 7.6 seconds remaining.
“Obviously, it was a little bit deep and he hadn’t played a whole lot. But that’s still a pretty good shot there at the end to tie it,” Smith continued. “Our guys had great resolve tonight.”
Oregon led 74-64 when Will Richardson (game-high 25 points) hit a Jimmer Fredette-range 3-pointer with 2:41 left that was as close to the half-court line as it was to the 3-point line. Gabe Madsen (team-high 19 points) scored five straight points, Worster made a backcourt steal and layup, Both Gach added a rebound basket and Anthony hit a couple of free throws with 21 seconds left to get the Utes within one.
After Worster’s free throws with 7.6 seconds left, Oregon’s Jacob Young went deep, took a long pass and laid the ball in with four seconds left. He probably would have been better off dribbling out the clock.
Out of timeouts, Utah raced up the court and got a decent look to tie, all things considered.
“They threw the ball over the top. That’s a gutsy play,” Smith said. “You gotta be pretty much right on the money when you do that. To their credit, they were.”
And so ended another heartbreaking loss for the Utes in a season full of them. But it also left Smith “incredibly proud” of his gutty group for about the 10th time this season.
Utah went toe-to-toe with one of the hottest teams in the country, he said, and will build on the valiant comeback as it turns its attention to Colorado next Saturday.
Since the coach suspended backup center Dusan Mahorcic indefinitely for a violation of team rules, the team has responded in a phenomenal way. Since then, they’ve lost in double overtime at Washington, routed Oregon State, and now nearly upset an Oregon team that has won nine of its last 10 games.
“Our guys are really galvanized, quite frankly, here, and I think we are playing really connected,” Smith said. “You don’t see a lot of selfish plays out of them. We showed up. I think they can see how much our team is improving, and we are. We are just knocking on the door on so many occasions.”
Don’t be surprised to see the Utes kick that door down against some of the Pac-12’s top teams in the near future, Anthony said.
“When you have a group of guys that like to be around each other, good things tend to happen,” Anthony said. “We are on that road. That long stretch of losing, we never faded away from each other. We kept trusting each other, and now we feel like we are about to go on a good roll again.”
A lot of people will remember this as the night Chambers was recognized — he lamented the curtains closing off the upper bowl in his halftime speech — and the night Anthony made SportsCenter and the night the Utes threw a mighty scare into the Ducks.
But Smith rued the fact that the Utes — who were No. 4 in the country in free-throw shooting — went just 15 of 23 from the free-throw line.
“The one thing we have hung our hat on this year — you could say our biggest strength — I mean, we have been top-five in the country in free-throw percentage all year,” he said. “And tonight, the one night that we don’t shoot it well — to our average, was tonight, and that really hurt us obviously.”
One came on the front end of a one-and-one opportunity; Anthony was 7 of 12 from the line. Oregon was 9 of 10.
Smith picked up a technical foul — his first of his Utes’ coaching career — with just under nine minutes remaining for apparently either getting too far out on the court for referee Mike Reid’s liking, or saying something too vehemently after he thought Worster was fouled driving to the basket.
Did it spark the Utes?
“Maybe. It doesn’t happen very often with me. Maybe once a year, maybe twice,” Smith said. “But you are always going to fight for your guys. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but it is what it is and maybe that did. You never know on that kind of stuff.”
There was another stretch in the first half when the Utes turned the ball over on five straight possessions without even hoisting up a shot. Seven of their 11 turnovers came in the first half.
“None of our guys hung their head,” Smith said. “There was an earlier stretch when I thought we were a little bit on the teetering point, but that was in the first half. We had a great look to us the whole second half.”
Especially in those last five minutes; Credit Oregon for going 4 for 4 from the line (Guerrier and Eric Williams Jr.) in the last minute.
“They are a great team. I would be surprised if they are not an NCAA Tournament team,” Smith said. “
Their backcourt is lethal, as we all saw, and can do a lot of things, off the bounce, shooting 35-foot 3s, and they have great rim protection and great versatility. They have a team that is built for March.”
As for Utah, it is a team that won’t stop marching, the coach said.
“We are playing with a lot of spirit. And that is a hard thing to define. Spirit is an amazing thing ... And I think you can feel it,” he said. “… I don’t know how to describe it, but something really good is happening right now, and we will see where it goes.”