Utah dropped to 8-8 on the season and 0-4 in conference play Saturday afternoon in a drubbing doled out by 6-10 USC before a vocal Huntsman Center crowd. Ironically, the Utes' worst loss to date comes after losing three conference games to high quality opponents by a combined total of eight points.
Arguably Utah's worst Pac-12 opponent so far, USC ran away with the game in a 76-59 beating.
"I thought we got man-handled, for the most part," head coach Larry Krystkowiak stated matter-of-factly.
From the start, USC had visibly better energy and intensity than Utah, and physically dominated the contest from start to finish.
"It was a real physical style of game. They play a really strong man to man defense," appraised Krystkowiak. "It took us out of a lot of stuff that we really tried to accomplish. The aggressor won."
The first half found Utah shooting 34.5 percent from the field and just 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. Despite that fact, Utah stayed close to the Trojans through most of the half, until the 3:07 mark of the half where Utah went cold offensively, and couldn't make a stop.
The result was a 7-0 USC run to close out the half, and took a 32-23 lead into halftime.
USC's 7-footer DeWayne Dedmon single-handedly dominated the game in the first half, altering shots at the rim, and blocking four shots in the first twenty minutes.
"[Dedmon] is a machine back there. He blocked four in the first half, that's where I thought he had an impact, not so much the second half," explained Krystkowiak. "I think we had post guys who didn't remember how big he is, and didn't use some of their moves, or pump-fakes, and things like that. I thought that gave them a lot of energy on the defensive end, and sucked the life out of us offensively."
The Utes have had trouble scoring the ball of late, but have kept in games by playing defense, something that did not happen Saturday against the hot shooting Trojans.
In the first half, USC shot 11-27 from the field (40.7%) and 4-8 (50%) from three-point range, and got scorching hot in the second half with a 60.9 percent performance from the floor, making it difficult for Utah to fight its way back.
At one point, Utah cut the deficit to as little as 10 points, but subsequently missed four straight free throws that could have put it back in the game with 5:53 remaining. As the ninth best free throw shooting teams in the nation through 14 games with a 76.9 percentage, Utah shot just 13-21 (61.9%) from the line.
Normally able to rely on defense and free throw shooting, Utah got its first taste of life without those things, and it wasn't pretty. However, the one bright spot was ball security, as Utah committed just six turnovers, a season low in category in which it has struggled mightily.
Senior Jarred DuBois also ended a scoring drought, erupting for 18 points and three rebounds and Jason Washburn added 13 points, four rebounds and three blocks. Freshman Jordan Loveridge scored 12 points and had a team-high seven rebounds.
A wounded, but not defeated Utah team was introspective about the troubling loss post-game, but made no excuses.
"To be honest, I think they came out and played harder than us. We didn't respond, but we usually do. I think we keep coming out and waiting. We keep taking the first punch, and then we react, we've got to be the aggressor and play harder. We've got to come out just play out play harder, with more heart, more intensity and want to win a little more, " offered DuBois.
While Utah has suffered a series of difficult losses throughout the season, Saturday's loss may rank as among the most troubling.
"Hopefully this is rock bottom for us, and this is as low as we'll get for the season," DuBois wished out loud. "Sometimes it's good for you to get to this point. It really shows what you're made of. When you're losing, getting blown out, it shows who you really are, the way you respond."
According to DuBois, part of that response will be to do some soul-searching, and self examination.
"[We need to] look in the mirror. From top to bottom from Coach [Krystkowiak] to our managers, we need to look in the mirror and figure out what we did in the past to help us win, and what we're not doing now," he said. "Hopefully if we take that look at ourselves, individually, it will help us come together as a team."
Senior Jason Washburn, who has unfortunately had to sit through too many similar press conferences in his long and tumultuous career, was somber in taking a probably too large share of the responsibility.
"I don't have any definitive answers. Personally, I don't think I came out to play the way I have been the last few games, and that's on me," he said. "My team needs me to do that, and I didn't do it tonight. That's the only thing I can speak on. My team plays hard, and my coach coaches even harder, so I've got to do my own reflection."
The sentiments from both seniors clearly came directly from Krystkowiak's post-game message to his team, as he revealed his plan to deal with the loss in his post-game press conference.
"We're at the point in our season where we're going to have 10 minute meetings with each guy. Our coaches are going to put together a list of three or four things that [everyone] needs to do better," revealed Krystkowiak. "We'll have those meetings completed by Monday's practice, and by the time we hit Monday's practice, two things. One, we're not going to quit, there's no way we're ever going to quit. Two, it's talk is cheap. It's time to come out and draw the line. There's no confusion about what coaches expect. Let's stop talking about the woulda, coulda, shouldas."
While the team may need to dig deeper to get through this slump, Krystkowiak acknowledged some potential short-comings in the game plan Saturday.
"[USC] doesn't have great shooters, and so that was kind of our game plan and we were going to try and keep the ball out of the paint. I don't know if that somehow got misconstrued that we didn't have to go out and play hard," Krystkowiak wondered. "It's almost like we needed to approach this game like they were great shooters, so we could be out on them. There were possessions where we kind of dared those guys to shoot, and that's where we felt the probabilities laid."
"When those shots go in, it's kind of hard to deal with that. So maybe it was from the initial game plan where we were going to be conservative, and think about protecting the paint." he summarized. "Those guys stepped up and hit some shots that maybe over the course of the season they haven't hit before."
With all the theorizing, one fact remains: the Utes got walloped Saturday, and they have less than a week to fix it.
"We talked last press conference about how we hadn't been whipped in any games," Krystkowiak said candidly. "Well, we just got whipped."