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Analysis: Unlucky Utes keep finding new ways to lose, go cold at free-throw line in 65-58 loss to Colorado

Utah loses its fourth-straight Pac-12 game, and second in a row at the Huntsman Center, by making only 2 of 11 free throws and blowing another 10-point halftime lead

Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) falls and loses the ball during a men’s basketball game against the Colorado Buffaloes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Utah lost 58-65.
Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) falls and loses the ball during a men’s basketball game against the Colorado Buffaloes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Utah lost 58-65.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Timmy Allen drove hard into the paint, was bumped a bit, and couldn’t get a heavily defended layup to fall. That seemed OK, because Branden Carlson was there for the follow dunk.

Nope. Carlson’s flush rimmed out, and he sustained an ankle injury crashing to the floor.

That sequence was a microcosm of the Utes’ afternoon, as they fell 65-58 to Colorado on Monday in a Pac-12 contest that was eerily similar to Utah’s 79-73 loss to No. 17 Oregon two days ago at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes (4-5, 1-4 Pac-12) have some glaring deficiencies, as they’ve shown in their four-game losing skid to arguably the top four teams in the league — UCLA, USC, Oregon and Colorado — but it also should be said that they’ve been a bit unlucky as well.

The play described above came with Utah trailing 57-54 and a couple minutes left on the clock. Had either Allen or Carlson finished, or gotten a call in a game that saw the Buffaloes attempt 24 free throws to Utah’s 11, the outcome easily could have been different.

Then again, there was no guarantee the Utes would have made the tying free throw.

While rebounding and their failure to finish was their problem against UCLA, their awful shooting in the second half the problem against USC and turnovers the problem against Oregon, a new one surfaced in Monday’s matinee — free-throw shooting.

How bad was it?

The Utes — usually an above-average free-throw shooting team, were 2 of 11 from the charity stripe, including 0 of 7 in the second half. That’s just not a formula for success in a season where almost every game is going to be tight due to no spectators providing a home-court advantage of which to speak.

“With this team, every little thing is a big thing,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak. “We shoot a normal free throw percentage, I don’t know, maybe (we win). I think it is a different game. … We just gotta keep moving forward, keep grinding.”

Krystkowiak didn’t want to make a big issue out of it, but he alluded to the free-throw disparity when he bemoaned Allen not getting a call on the aforementioned attempt, and others.

Allen played point guard the final eight minutes or so of the first half — when the Utes jumped out to a 37-27 lead, the same margin they held against Oregon at the break — and most of the second half and was the catalyst for Utah’s offense.

“He does a good job with the ball in his hands. He does a good job getting to the basket,” Krystkowiak said. “I just can’t get over how many times he gets to the rim and gets fouled and it doesn’t get called.”

Free-throw shooting wasn’t Utah’s only problem; Rebounding was a major one, again, as the Buffs won the battle 49-31 and had 15 offensive boards to Utah’s four. Colorado turned those offensive boards into 13 second-chance points.

“We got pounded on the glass,” said Krystkowiak, praising the squad’s defense for the third straight game. “We got to them to miss. … So the rebounds happen a lot. Missed shots happen a lot. We cleaned it up for Oregon, but this is a big, physical team. They pounded us. We missed block outs, and that was super costly.”

D’Shawn Schwartz had 15 rebounds for the Buffs to go with 15 points, while freshman Jabari Walker added 15 points and 10 rebounds on a day when leading scorer and all-league player McKinley Wright was held to nine points on 2 of 8 shooting.

After play was halted to attend to Carlson, who was writhing in pain under the basket, Schwartz hit a 15-foot jumper over Allen to give Colorado a five-point lead with 56 seconds left. Colorado was 6 for 6 from the free-throw line in the final minute.

“I am not going to discredit our defense, or the execution of our defense in the final two minutes,” Krystkowiak said. “That is just not the storyline. Our defense was unbelievable, really, overall.”

Indeed, Utah shot 55% from the field in the first half, but just 33% in the second half. After committing 18 turnovers in the loss to Oregon, Utah gave it away just nine times Monday.

“We gotta start putting all this stuff together,” Krystkowiak said.

But how?

Rebounding is easily the recurring issue, but that’s not a problem that can be easily solved, as the coach duly noted.

“Well, I would like everybody to be about 260 (pounds), and 6-foot-11,” he said. “But we aren’t going to be anytime soon. I think it is a variety of issues and we have been working on it. … We don’t have a magic pill to get big and strong and look like a massive rebounder, so we are going to do what we can from a coaching perspective to fix was much as we possibly can.”

Allen said the Utes “are right there” and only a couple of plays away from having a winning record in league play.

“We can’t be the responder in the second half,” he said.

If only they could bottle their last two first halves, Krystkowiak lamented, saying that Utah has played good basketball more often than not during its four-game losing skid.

“We just played four really good teams, two on the road, two at home,” he said. “And we have had periods, I would say, maybe two-thirds of our basketball has been really good. A third hasn’t.”

In the first half, the Utes scored on five straight possessions, missed a shot, then scored on their next four. They took a 35-24 lead on Ian Martinez’s driving layup and took a 37-27 lead at the break.

Krystkowiak started the same lineup for the second straight game, and for the second straight game it faltered the first few minutes of the second half. Colorado overcame the 10-point deficit with a 15-0 run, and it was deja vu for the Utes.

“In league play, you gotta be tough, and you gotta be tough for 40 minutes,” Allen said.

And make your free throws. Grabbing a few more rebounds wouldn’t hurt, either.