SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah basketball team has had its share of slow starts at home this year. In games against Oral Roberts, Colorado State and Air Force, the Utes fell way behind early, caught up, but lost close games at the end.
The Utes had another one of their patented slow starts Saturday in their final home game of the season. But this time, they dug themselves a hole that was so deep, it was impossible to climb out of.
Despite playing pretty well in the second half and outscoring UNLV, the Utes still lost by 20. That's what happens when you fall behind by 25 points at halftime.
You'd think a team scrambling for a better seed in the upcoming Mountain West Conference Tournament and playing its final home game of the season might be a little more motivated at the start of the game than Utah was Saturday.
But it was the same old story for the Utes, who got off to another abysmal start, due to horrible shooting — they missed 14 of their first 15 shots — and poor defense, as UNLV sank 9 of its first 10 attempts.
For a while on Saturday, it looked like the Utes might be on their way to a record for worst loss ever at the Huntsman Center, which happened just five seasons ago when No. 25 Arizona throttled Ray Giacoletti's Utes 73-43.
The Utes trailed 47-22 at halftime, which likely was a Huntsman Center record for largest halftime deficit, but they played decently in the second half when they cut the lead to 17 before the final 20-point margin.
"After they made a couple of shots, they staggered us a little," said coach Jim Boylen. "We were kind of tentative after that. That's something this team has done."
STILL HURT: Will Clyburn, arguably the Utes' best player all season, has been a shadow of himself the last three games.
And with good reason.
The 6-foot-7 forward, who is a top candidate for MWC newcomer of the year, has been hobbling with an injured heel since late in a Feb. 16 game against Wyoming. He couldn't play against New Mexico, scored just seven points against TCU and then 10 Wednesday night against Colorado State.
He was listed as a game-time decision for Saturday's game, but after playing 12 minutes in the first half, he didn't return for the second.
"Will Clyburn is hurt and we tried to protect him," Boylen said. "Obviously he's not himself. It's been a tough injury for him and for the team."
For the first time all season, Clybburn went scoreless. In fact, it was just the third game he didn't score in double figures, as he went 0-for-6 from the field with just three rebounds.
CHEERS FOR WATKINS: The loudest ovations of the day came in the final seconds after many fans had already left.
With 1:01 left, Jay Watkins, the only senior on the Utah basketball team who had been honored before the game, checked in to loud applause. It was Watkins' first appearance at the Huntsman Center since clear back on Dec. 7 against Pepperdine. He missed the home game against Boise State 10 days later, played five road games before being shut down for the season on Jan. 6.
Watkins played for 20 seconds and committed a foul on UNLV's Quantrell Thomas. That brought more cheers and he received another ovation as he trotted off the court for the last time.
"He's given me all that he had," said Boylen. "He's played hurt and done all the treatment on that back that he can. I thought he needed that ovation and respect from the crowd. He's earned it. He took a hard foul, which is fitting for him and then we got him out. He's a wonderful kid."