Larry Krystkowiak was laughing when he sat down to talk to reporters via Zoom after his Runnin’ Utes basketball team lost a heartbreaker to the NCAA Tournament-bound Oregon Ducks on Saturday night at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Oregon.
It wasn’t because Utah’s 10-year coach found the ending to be all that funny. Actually, he found it to be ridiculous.
The Ducks improved to 9-3 in Pac-12 play, 14-4 overall, and have now defeated the Utes in 19 of 21 conference matchups. Utah dropped to 6-9 and 9-10 and finished its brutal four-game road swing with a 1-3 record.
Speaking of brutal, that’s how the Utes were describing a call that went against them in the final seconds. Trailing 65-64, Utah had the ball and was looking to win in Eugene for the first time since Dec. 29, 2017.
Freshman guard Pelle Larsson drove into the paint, but instead of continuing to the basket, he whirled and threw a pass back to Timmy Allen. The ball eluded Allen, and he ran back to near midcourt to retrieve it.
After he finally got a handle on it, Allen started dribbling, at which time referee Deldre Carr blew his whistle and called a double-dribble violation with 3.4 seconds left. Oregon’s Chris Duarte made a pair of free throws with 3.0 seconds left and the Ducks escaped when Allen’s heave at the buzzer sailed high.
“Wow,” said Krystkowiak, chuckling in disgust. “All I can say is ‘Wow.’”
Utah did everything necessary to post another signature Pac-12 win, having upset Colorado in Boulder last month, but failed to finish. Krystkowiak clearly wasn’t happy, saying he isn’t into moral victories.
“You know, what a team goes through, and we scrapped and we played our butts off, and it wasn’t error-free by any means. And we made plenty of mistakes. Oregon made plenty of mistakes. Dana (Altman) and I probably made plenty of mistakes,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day we let the players determine a game, so to make up a call at the end that didn’t even happen is mind-boggling, when we have palming, (which) is also a rule, as is double dribble.”
The coach wasn’t finished venting.
“And palming doesn’t seem to be called. I can show you 15 clips of palming tonight,” he continued. “So I am really confused and I feel really bummed for our team. I feel bad for the game, that it has to be that way. That’s how I feel about it.”
Asked if they thought it was double dribble, Utes Alfonso Plummer and Pelle Larsson said no.
“Not from my angle,” Plummer said.
Sure, officials could have let Allen play on, but chances of something good happening for the Utes were slim at that point, their star forward standing about 45 feet away from the basket with a defender on him.
That was actually the third straight possession in which the Utes failed to execute.
After Plummer hit a 3-pointer with 1:36 remaining to knot the score at 64-64, Duarte hit one of two free throws to give the Ducks the lead. Utah’s Branden Carlson then missed a jump hook from about 5 feet away.
With 27 seconds left, Plummer dropped the ball out of bounds; the Utes finished with 14 turnovers, six fewer than in the 18-point loss to Oregon State on Thursday, but the final two were absolute killers.
“We gotta finish games,” Plummer acknowledged. “We battled the whole game. We were playing hard, talking on defense, getting back, playing hard in the post. We were playing really good the whole game, playing hard, but we got to get better on finishing.”
Utah dropped to ninth place in the Pac-12 standings with the loss. This one is going to sting for a while.
That said, it was one of the Utes’ best efforts of the roller-coaster season, and it came with starting point guard Rylan Jones watching from the bench with an injured shoulder and starting four man Mikael Jantunen out for the third game doing Finnish national team duty.
Krystkowiak isn’t sure yet whether Jantunen will be available Thursday against UCLA at the Huntsman Center.
Utah’s effort “is where 99% of my mind is,” Krystkowiak said. “I have no problem with that. I really, really loved our effort, the focus, the energy that the guys brought. We had a few turnover issues. I think we should have passed the ball a few more times at the end of the game to open shots, to open guys, but overall, it was tremendous. Our guys didn’t have any quit in them, as opposed to Thursday night.”
Shorthanded, the Utes got just four points from their bench, while Oregon got 11.
Utah’s defense was stellar — holding Oregon and all its weapons to 48% shooting — but when it really mattered, the Utes couldn’t get stops.
After Allen’s free throws with 2:36 left gave Utah a 61-58 lead, Duarte and Figueroa got free for back-to-back 3-pointers.
“We started the game moving the ball really well and we were dialed in defensively,” Krystkowiak said. “Like I said, we had some breakdowns, but it is never going to be perfect against Oregon. We put ourselves into position to win.”
Utah played one of its best halves of the season in jumping out to a 35-33 lead. The Utes shot 50% (13 of 26) and had just five turnovers before the break.
Seven players scored in the first half for the Utes, led by Plummer and Larsson with nine apiece.
Utah worked the shot clock well in the first half, shortened the Ducks’ number of possessions and broke the Oregon press well the first 20 minutes.
The game opened ominously for Utah, as big man Carlson took a nice pass from Allen and dunked the ball just 14 seconds into the game, but couldn’t catch his feet and landed awkwardly on his left hip.
The 7-foot sophomore had to be helped off the floor but returned with 16:21 left in the first half and had five points, four rebounds and two assists in the half.
“We weren’t going to have a chance without him,” Krystkowiak said. “… Not a great way to start a game when you smack the floor like that with your body parallel to the floor, but it was gutsy. It showed something. Toughness is something I have challenged our guys. … That is part of the DNA of our program. That was a big step forward for BC.”
Toughness that won’t be forgotten. Just like the ending.