Sparked by true freshman Kareem Storey in the second half, Utah put together as much as a five point lead late after being down by as much as six at the 16:53 mark of the second half.
Since the 61-60 loss to Adams State was an exhibition game, it won't count against the Utes' record, but according to senior guard Josh Watkins, it counts in the players' minds.
"What I'm going to say is that we're getting the loss out early. It's our first lost, it doesn't count," the senior leader said. "But it counts to us. That was a big loss, our first game in front of our own crowd. We know what we have to work on. We'll be at the film and at practice tomorrow and we've got to work on those things. Maybe it will be a better outcome."
The loss likely will stick in the Utes' minds simply because after coming back, the Utes looked to have the game in hand in the closing minutes of the contest.
Utah held a 60-57 lead and the ball with 1:25 left before Watkins would miss a jump shot that would be rebounded by Kaimyn Pruitt, who was the game's leading scorer with 16, that Adams State would cash in for three and a tied ball game at 60 all with :38 seconds left.
With possession, Utah put the ball in freshman Kareem Storey's hands who lingered near the half-court line for nearly twenty seconds as the game clock wound down. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak called timeout, and the Utes looked to be in business with a play called and plenty of time to execute it.
Unfortunately for the new and young Utes, things didn't go as planned.
Adams State would defend well on the play, much as they had all night, and Storey, with no open teammates and no options, called timeout. The problem, however, was that Utah had used all it's timeouts had none left.
"It was just a mental mistake on my part. I'm a freshman, I made a mistake," a still upbeat Storey said of his late-game error. "I'm going to learn from it and I'm just going to move from there."
Queue the infamous, requisite Chris Webber references.
Webber notoriously called a timeout that cost Michigan's Fab Five a National Championship in 1993 against North Carolina, something that has followed Webber throughout his career like a black cloud. By rule, two technical shots are awarded to the opposing team if a timeout is called when there are no timeouts left, which iced the game for the Tar Heels in that memorable National Championship game.
Adams State guard Deray Wilson missed the front end of the technical, but made the second, putting them up 61-60 with :11 left. The Utes in-bounded the ball with a chance, however slight, and however rushed. A victory wasn't to be, as junior Cedric Martin turned the ball over, attempting a pass to Jason Washburn, who appeared to have an open lane with two much smaller defenders fronting him, had he received the ball.
Instead, Shayar Lee leaped up and snatched the ball out of the air before rushing down the court to force a shot, which he missed. Again, the Utes had a chance with :09 seconds remaining. Utah pushed the ball up the court, worked the ball around to the corner where an open Cedric Martin had a good look at a three, but missed the would-be game winner by that much.
Fortunately for the Krystkowiak's Utes, the timeout didn't cost them a national championship, a league championship, or anything else, really. Though disappointing, the Utes quickly chalked it up to youth and inexperience and vowed to learn from it.
"This is all a learning experience. Every time we go around [it's a learning experience]," Krystkowiak said. "He's going to learn from that mistake, but without out Kareem we wouldn't even be in that position. That's one of those things that we can chalk up, and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Showing true senior leadership, Josh Watkins refused to let Storey shoulder the blame and responsibility of the costly error.
"It's expected that we're supposed to know how many timeouts we have. Like Kareem said, it was a mental mistake, on all of our parts. With all of us being on the court, we should have known and let him know," Watkins said. "If someone would have made sure and let him know, that would take care of that. So that's on all of us, that's not just on him. That's on all of us."
With some dreaded recurring themes lingering from last season, and oddly, an entirely different squad, the loss was peppered with familiar trouble spots. Utah committed 19 turnovers, shot just 60.9% from the line and shot too often, and poorly from three (4-17). For stretches, like last season, there was no sense of where the scoring might come from from, while the defense simultaneously broke down allowing for the opposition to either build, or erase leads.
Krystkowiak, a contrasting departure from former Utah head man Jim Boylen, wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade, understanding that patience is going to be required of himself as a coach, the Utah Athletic Department, and what's left of the fan base.
"We're so new in this, that losing a basketball game, I don't think this is one of those games where you can say there was a whole lot of positives," admitted Krystkowiak. "We've got a lot of work to do, and we're up for the challenge."
Despite Krystkowiak's statement to the contrary there were positives to take away. Momentarily setting aside any expectations that may have existed or quantifying results with a win-loss record, the Utes saw some things to build on.
Indeed, Storey was the story of the night, and it appears that the Utes have found themselves a true point guard, something the program has missed for years. Understandably, the Utes are looking for the right combinations and chemistry on the floor, but so soon in the season, it hasn't come.
"It's a little bit of a reach to take too much into account. We're just going to try to piece it together right now, and try to come up with some combinations," Krystkowiak said of Friday's starting lineup and roster rotations. "Nothing [is set] as far as starters, or anything like that."
In the midst of his work-in-progress lineup, Krystkowiak seemed to have happened on something in the second half when Storey took over the point, with Watkins moving to the two guard spot. With the pressure off, Watkins seemed to relish the two role as he chipped in 7 points to finish with a tie for team high 12 points, picked up 4 rebounds to finish with five, and dished out four assists.
Storey seemed to start to take over the team, playing the true point guard role and looking like more like an upperclassmen than a freshman. While he committed the critical, freshman mistake with the called timeout, it was the little things that stood out. Directing players on the court from the point, taking control of the huddle during free throws and in general, exerting himself.
"[Storey's performance] was critical. With us being upperclassmen and Kareem is a freshman, he came in and showed like he'd been here for three, or four years already," Watkins said of Storey's debut performance. "That was a big spark and it gave me a chance to play the two a little bit and create for others. It was real big for us."
Storey would hit a perfect 4-4 from the field, 1-1 from three and 3-3 from the free throw line to finish with 12 points. Ten of those came in the second half, after just two that came off free throws in the first. It was Storey's drive at the ten minute mark in the second that sparked the Utes' comeback, as he added the plus one at the end of the play to put Utah up by two.
Washburn responded with points off a smart, effort play and the Utes seemed to have taken control of the game, building a four point lead, their largest to that point.
Turnovers, poor shot selection and poor defense saw the lead disappear and the Utes down by three at 52-55 when Storey pulled down a key defensive rebound which result in Watkins free throws, cutting the lead to 54-55.
Storey would score the next five points for the Utes, creating a four point lead that the Utes built upon to go up by five with 1:46 to play.
The rest, as they say is history, however, when the Utes sorely needed someone to step up and show leadership and be willing to make key plays, it was the unlikely, true freshman Storey who stepped up with authority, energy and effort.
In fact, the nucleus of freshmen that Krystkowiak has pieced together like patchwork showed real promise, or at least a solid foundation on which to build upon. In the end, it wasn't David Foster or the other returning Ute players who carried the Utes in their first game. Nor was it the more prominent junior college players like Dajon Farr that did the heavy lifting, but rather a trio of freshmen who provided the spark.
"I think every team needs a little bit of a pulse like that. A heart. He gets after it," Krystkowiak said of his freshman guard. "There's nothing like having that person out there that's out there laying it on the line, and he did that for us tonight."
While Cedric Martin, Dajon Farr and Jason Washburn played important roles, it was supposed to be the opposite with Storey, Odunsi and Wilkinson playing supporting roles.
Farr kept the Utes in the game with seven points in the first half, finishing with ten for the game, while Martin finished with 10 points to go along with Watkins' 12. Odunsi's seven first half points helped the Utes stay close in the first, while Blake Wilkinson went 0-4 from the field, and didn't score in the game. He did, however, make all the hustle plays that kept the ball alive, or in the hands of teammates that resulted in points, and pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds.
If not for Foster's injury, and the absence of Javon Dawson who missed the game due to a concussion, the team dynamic, and outcome would likely have been different. Chris Hines also left the game early with a rib injury and the rest of the team was left to feel itself out, play out of position and find new ways to compete.
While those circumstances combined for a loss, they also allowed for opportunities for unlikely players who weren't likely to significantly contribute this season. For Krystkowiak, it means more shuffling and perhaps extended uncertainty, but at least he now knows he has significantly more pieces with which to work. Most importantly, like all programs need in order to compete, he has found a nucleus of freshman to build a program around.