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Utah ‘humbled’ by Arizona State in potential blow to NCAA Tournament hopes

Utes get outplayed and outphysicaled in Quadrant 3 home loss to Arizona State that Utah can’t afford late in the season

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Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson (0) fights for the ball against Arizona Sun Devils guard Frankie Collins (1) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2023.

Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson (0) fights for the ball against Arizona Sun Devils guard Frankie Collins (1) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2023.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Saturday’s loss to Arizona State is a blow to Utah’s NCAA Tournament resume.

After Utah came up just short in a triple-overtime loss to No. 8 Arizona — a win would have really boosted the Utes’ NCAA tournament resume — the Utes absolutely had to beat the Sun Devils, who entered Saturday’s game losers of five in a row.

Utah entered the night as a No. 8 seed in most NCAA tournament bracketology projections and could not afford a Quadrant 3 loss, especially with five of its final seven regular-season games on the road, where Utah has struggled mightily, going 0-5 in Pac-12 play this season.

But Arizona State was the aggressor and outphysicaled the Utes in a 85-77 win that snapped a five-game losing steak for the Sun Devils and handed Utah its second consecutive loss at a critical time in the season.

Sun Devil guard Jose Perez had a big night, scoring 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Perez hit the dagger 3-point shot with 2:16 left after a layup by Keba Keita and a 3-pointer by Cole Bajema cut the Sun Devils’ lead to four points.

“It’s a humbling game and we got humbled tonight,” Utah coach Craig Smith said. 

Here are three takeaways from a bad Utah loss.

Utes shrink in a chippy game

Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State teams take on the identity of how their coach played at Duke.

More often than not, they’re going to be physical, they’re going to get under your skin and the game is going to be a little bit chippy.

Tensions that had been simmering throughout the game came to a boil after Sun Devil Alonzo Gaffney and Utah center Lawson Lovering got tangled up, which resulted in Lovering on the ground and got both benches fired up.

Both players were assessed a double foul after a lengthy review, much to the chagrin of Smith and the Huntsman Center crowd.

That’s exactly the kind of game Arizona State is comfortable in, and the Utes seemed to shrink against the Sun Devils’ physicality.

It didn’t necessarily show up anywhere on the stat sheet — though Arizona State outrebounded Utah by five — but Utah’s players were feeling it as the game progressed.

“Normally we’re a pretty physical team. I felt like they were the aggressor. And we have a saying in our program, the aggressor always wins. And I firmly believe that in every sport. And you got to have an aggressive mindset and a physicality and I didn’t think we matched that consistently tonight,” Smith said.

Utah came out with a ton of energy to start the game after playing a marathon basketball game on Thursday, forcing two ASU turnovers — leading to two Ute buckets — and went on an 11-0 run early in the first half.

The Utes couldn’t sustain that for long as Arizona State wore them down throughout the game.

“We just weren’t as connected as we needed to be tonight and we just weren’t as tough as we needed to be tonight, and I just thought they outplayed us. They outcompeted us,” Smith said.

Against an Arizona State team that was reeling heading into Saturday’s contest, it was the kind of performance a hopeful NCAA Tournament team just can’t have.

“I think we had moments and stretches where we were good, and others where we just had lapses,” said Utah center Branden Carlson, who became Utah’s all-time leader in blocked shots in the loss.

“We just needed to be better physically, defensively for us. I think we had way too many opportunities where they just drove right by us and we didn’t wall up. I think they had way too many shots at their end that we needed to contest more, but I think this just a learning point for us and now we got to just grow from this.”

Free-throw woes, again

For the second game in a row, free throws were a sore point for the Utes.

The Utes shot 46% (6 for 13) from the free-throw line on Saturday after shooting 48% (10 for 21) against the Wildcats.

No team is going to be perfect from the charity stripe, of course, but a major college team just can’t shoot this poorly in critical games.

“Got to make our free throws. Starting to become a little bit of a habit of saying that and I just think there’s a lot of things with that, so got to be better,” Smith said.

It’s not as much about the physical aspect of shooting free throws as it is about the mental aspect. Utah shoots plenty of free throws in practice, with every player shooting a high percentage.

When the lights have been bright in the last two crucial games, though, it’s been a different story.

“I think it’s just a mental thing. I think we just got to step to the line, myself really included,” Carlson said. “We just got to step up and just know that we’ve put in the time and that we make these free throws in practice.

“Everyone shoots a very high percentage in practice. I think it’s just in the game, it’s got to be a mental thing. I think free throws, it’s a very mental aspect of the game. You walk up and you just have the confidence and to knock them down and so we just have to have guys just step up in the moment, myself included.”

An off offensive night

The Sun Devils’ much-maligned recent defense, the main culprit in their lengthy losing streak, was improved against Utah.

Utah shot 46% from the field but just 32% from 3-point range and turned the ball over 13 times, leading to 21 points for Arizona State.

“A lot of times their best offense is their defense and you just can’t allow our offense to be their best offense,” Smith said.

Carlson was a bright spot offensively, scoring 25 points, though he was off from deep, like most of the team, shooting 2 for 7 from 3-point range.

Starting point guard Deivon Smith, who has shouldered a big workload with usual starter Rollie Worster out with injury, scored zero points and attempted just three shots, though he did have a team-high seven assists.

Gabe Madsen, who helped Utah come back from a 16-point deficit against Arizona, had an off night, scoring 11 points on 4 of 15 shooting and 2 of 11 from 3-point land.

“We missed a lot of shots, quite frankly, in that second half. We had a lot of clean looks that just didn’t fall in and sometimes that happens and I’m not a guy that usually says something like that, but I thought we did have a lot of clean ones tonight,” Craig Smith said.

The Utes focused a little too much on the 3-ball instead of getting the ball inside, especially when Arizona State’s two starting big men, Shawn Phillips Jr. and Alonzo Gaffney, were in foul trouble or on the bench for a good chunk of the second half.

Up next

The Utes travel to Los Angeles for a road swing against USC and UCLA before continuing the road stretch at Colorado the week after their trip to Hollywood.

The Trojans are on a bad slide, losing eight of their last nine games, including a 31-point loss at Stanford on Saturday. UCLA is on a five-game winning streak after defeating Cal 61-60 on Saturday.