After a welcomed, but unlikely road win at Washington, the Runnin' Utes had a chance to put two consecutive conference wins together for the first time since joining the Pac-12.
Instead, the Utes let yet another winnable game slip away to a respectable Cal team Thursday at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. With the 62-57 loss, Utah dipped below .500 with a 9-10 overall record and a 1-6 record in Pac-12 play.
Overall, Utah played good defense but suffered defensive breakdowns in small stretches, and at critical times. Offensively, however, the Utes oddly lethargic and ineffective despite a 50 percent shooting half and a 42.6 performance on the night.
At the half, Glen Dean and Brandon Taylor led the Utes with five points each, and each would finish with ten points a piece. Jason Washburn got it going in the second half with 14 points and seven rebounds, while freshman Jordan Loveridge also came on in the second half to finish with 12 points and nine rebounds.
The Utes planned to "duplicate" all the things they did well against Washington, most specifically, a fast start.
Thursday, it was quite the opposite as the Utes managed just 11 points in the first 11.5 minutes of the contest. By contrast, Utah was up on the Huskies 12-4 inside of the game's first four minutes Saturday in Seattle.
Perhaps Utah's 15 first half turnovers had something to do with the slow start, as Cal converted the giveaways into 11 first half points. Not coincidentally, Utah was down 32-22 at the half. deficit.
"It wasn't any kind of high-pressure defense that forced [the turnovers]. We just didn't have the focus. I think intensity-wise, it was OK, but you need to be mentally strong besides physically strong," said head coach Larry Krystkowiak. "They scouted some of our plays and we were just running our plays the way they used to work, and we're just throwing balls right to the defense."
Krystkowiak continued his assessment of Utah's play in the first half.
"I thought that really took a lot of wind out of our sails in the first half, having to deal with that," he summarized. "Yet it was still fairly close at halftime. It was really a bad half of basketball, on both sides of the ball."
It didn't help that the Utes had to face the conference's leading scorer in Allen Crabbe, who also ranks 17th in scoring nationally with an average of 19.8 ppg. Utah's defense has proven capable of keeping top scorers in check, but Thursday was the exception, and not the rule as Crabbe poured in a game-high 23 points against.
"We had some breakdowns on Crabbe, and let him get some looks. We didn't treat him like one of the leading scorers in the league," said Krystkowiak. "Mentally, we really weren't as locked in as we needed to be. Really disappointing."
Despite its first half showing, Utah came back in the second half and committed just two turnovers to finish with 17, and cut a 15 point Cal lead down to as few as three points with :55 remaining in the contest.
It was center Jason Washburn's unlikely three-pointer that cut the Cal lead to three points, and gave the Utes hope for a come-from-behind victory. After Washburn's long-distance bomb, Utah got the stop it was looking for, a missed jumper at the :30 mark, but could not possess the ball after a long rebound turned into a loose ball, ultimately reigned in by Cal. Second later Utah's Glen Dean was forced to foul Crabbe with 17 seconds remaining, putting him on the line to ice the game.
Utah's latest 'almost' was made all the more frustrating by the fact that the Utes had plenty of opportunity to close the game out in an all-too-familiar theme Thursday. Utah's defense came alive in the closing minutes of the game and Cal did not hit a field goal for the final 4:20 of the contest. Cal did, however, go 8-11 from the free throw line inside the final two minutes.
Utah has little time to bounce back with Stanford coming to town on Sunday, January 27, though freshman point guard Brandon Taylor vows that the Utes will put this loss behind them and move forward.
"We can't sit here and doom ourselves for this loss. We have to remember that we have improved. We just came out and threw the ball away 15 times in the first half," lamented Taylor. "We have to take the 'L' for what it is. We're not going to get stuck on this loss, we're going to get back up and try this thing all over again."