SALT LAKE CITY — With a little more than eight minutes remaining Saturday afternoon, the Utah basketball team was right there with sixth-ranked San Diego State with a chance to take the lead.
Down one, the Utes came down and missed two shots. Ten seconds later, Kawhi Leonard put the Aztecs up by three and 17 seconds after that, D.J. Gay sank a 3-pointer after a missed Utah layup.
Boom, just like that the game went from a possible Utah lead to a six-point deficit. From there, the Utes never got closer and the Aztecs went home with a nine-point victory over a team many thought they'd beat by 20.
For the Utes, it was a familiar scenario — letting a few key plays dictate the outcome of the game. Coach Jim Boylen says every game comes down to a handful of plays, and his team has been on the wrong end nearly every time this year.
In each of the last four losses, Utah has either been leading or within a point in the final minutes, only to make some poor decisions that lead to a loss.
In Saturday's loss, Boylen wasn't happy with a pair of early 3-pointers by first-year players that missed and quickly turned into baskets at the other end.
The first came when J.J. O'Brien, the freshman from California, fired up a 3-pointer with 20 seconds still on the shot clock and the Utes down one. A couple of minutes later, Josh Watkins hoisted an early 3-pointer, again with 20 seconds on the shot clock.
When asked about it, Boylen said,"(O'Brien) shouldn't have taken that shot. We were in the penalty. He should have driven the ball, maybe pitched it again."
As for Watkins' try, Boylen said, "I thought Jiggy's 3 was early in the clock. Those were 3s that we need to learn not to take. You can take that same shot late in the clock."
On the other hand, Boylen said he likes the confidence his young players have.
"If you want me to handcuff guys, I don't do that in this program," he said. "You've got to let your kids play in the street a little bit so they can grow up.
"J.J. O'Brien is going to be a good basketball player. He'll be one of the better players to play here with his versatility and ability to play the game. I've got to let him play in the street a little bit."
O'Brien acknowledged afterward, "I probably could have driven it, but I was open and shot it."
He said he played some guard in high school, so he feels comfortable shooting from the outside. After sitting out nine games with a stress fracture in his foot, O'Brien is rounding into shape and finished with career highs in points (6) and rebounds (10).
"I think you saw some glimpses of what J.J. O'Brien can be — a multiple ball-handler, a big wing," said Boylen. "For a freshman to get 10 boards against that team says a lot."
Despite the loss, Boylen was encouraged by his team sticking with the Aztecs most of the way.
"We're close," he said. "We're young and we're new. Those are not excuses, those are facts. We just have to play a complete game."