The Utah basketball team lost its sixth game of the season, a nail-biter, to un-defeated, No. 3 ranked Arizona Saturday afternoon at the Wildcats' McKale Center in Tucson.
Right down to the end the Utes were in the game, even with an opportunity to tie the contest in the final seconds. However senior guard Jarred DuBois could not knock down what would have been the game-tying three pointer to force overtime, despite getting a good look.
The 60-57 loss stands, and despite the close call, Utah remains 0-2 in conference play after dropping a one point OT thriller to Arizona State Wednesday night. The close-but-no-dice theme is a familiar one as Utah's six losses were lost by a combined deficit of 22 points, or an average of 3.7 points per game.
"It certainly feels like a bit of déjà vu. Make shots. That's what we have to do. That's what we're not doing," offered Larry Krystkowiak post-game. "I'm convinced we're going to catch some breaks. But we just have to continue to bring it and some of those shots are going to go in for us."
Encouraged by sticking close with a probably over-rated, but still nationally elite team like Arizona on one hand, and frustrated at the team's inability to close out tight games on the other, fans may not know what to make of this Utah team as yet.
According to Krystkowiak, the Utes have lost neither their confidence, nor their identity, even if fans are unsure.
""It gets us prepared. We have played a bunch of close games, nail-biters this week and with BYU come to mind. The experience we have gained, hopefully, helps us get one down the line," he assured. "We aren't bummed out. We have a great bunch of guys that want to get back in the saddle and stay after it. I don't fear our guys losing confidence. They know we are on the right path."
Ultimately, it is a team who is good enough to be in the games, but still inept at winning them, which ultimately is the progress Ute fans hoped for coming into the season. Though disappointment reigns supreme now that expectations have been elevated after the Utes have demonstrated an ability to compete at high level (at times), the inability to finish reveals that Utah's progression is nowhere near complete.
The inconsistency and inability to close out is something the Utes must resolve, but they've proven to be a team so far that doesn't shrink in the face of adversity, doesn't seem to be affected by tough road atmospheres and doesn't quit.
While head coach Larry Krystkowiak hasn't quite tackled the issue of closing out close games in six tries, the second year head man and his staff have proven adept at resolving nagging issues through the course of the 14 game season.
Even if it's taken more time than desired, the Utes look to have curbed their nagging turnover issue, committing just 11 turnovers Saturday against the Wildcats and 10 in the Arizona State loss Wednesday night. After struggling offensively against the zone, the Utes have not completely resolved that issue, but have shown improvement. The Utes have even minimized the all-too frequent scoring droughts Utah has suffered in five of six losses this season.
As Utah has improved in many areas, there is no guarantee it can consistently sustain the improvement, though demonstrating the progress in two consecutive road games against quality improvements is a solid first step in the right direction.
Down 30-23 in the first half after an average shooting effort with a 34.4 percentage from the field, Utah came out scorching hot, going 9-15 (60%) through nearly the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Senior Jason Washburn scored nine of his 17 points and grabbed four of his 11 rebounds and one of his two blocks during that crucial stretch for the Utes. After scoring just two points on 1-6 shooting in the first half, Washburn's turnaround was the catalyst for the Ute run that pulled his team to within three points.
After the run to start the second half, the final ten minutes of the half would prove to be a roller coaster, with Utah pulling within as few as one point twice, before falling behind again by seven points in instance and five points in another.
In each instance, Utah was able to hit the key shot, secure every loose ball, hit every key shot and grab every rebound it needed to have a chance in the closing moments, but ironically could not hit the final shot in the waning seconds.
Jarred DuBois, who took the Utes' final shot, finished with 12 points and three assists on just 2-10 shooting, however, the senior made his living from the free throw line Saturday, going 7-7 from the stripe.
Freshman forward Jordan Loveridge scored 17 points on the strength of 3-5 shooting from behind the arc, which was complimented by four rebounds and two assists.
Loveridge had this to say about his team's gutsy performance.
"A game like that, versus a team like that, it's always going to be frustrating when you can't come out with the win," summarized Loveridge. "But you know I'm proud of my team and that's a good team. We're getting better every day. This is not a step back because we lost. We're still getting better."