Utah Valley University battled in-state foe Utah to the bitter end but ran out of steam in the closing minutes in falling to its capital city rivals, 81-70, at the Huntsman Center on Wednesday night. The loss came in the wake of a season-best performance from guard Katie Kuklok, who set a new season-high with 34 points in the contest. She was one of three Wolverines in double figures on the night.
Kuklok's 34 came on just 7-of-12 shooting as the sophomore transfer went 16-of-17 from the free-throw line and buried four threes along the way. With 16 made free throws, Kuklok tied the single-game program mark set earlier this season by teammate Tina Doughty.
"I told our team that if they needed a glimpse at what kind of basketball team they could be and the kind of potential they have, they need only look at tonight's game," head coach Cathy Nixon said. "We used a lot of lineups and used people in unique spots and I'm very proud of the way we responded and the way we battled the entire game. I think we can hold our heads up high and know that we have the pieces in place to be a good basketball team."
Joining Kuklok in double figures were sophomore center Sam Loggins and true freshman forward Rhaiah Spooner-Knight. The duo scored 11 and 10 points, respectively, with Spooner-Knight winding up only a rebound shy of a double-double.
After an even first half, Utah Valley (1-9) couldn't find the same shooting touch it had enjoyed to start the game as action transitioned into the second period. Over the first 10 minutes of play out of the locker room, the Wolverines shot 30 percent from the field. The cold snap, compounded by five turnovers over the span, found UVU trailing Utah (4-4) by its largest deficit of the game at 57-45 with 9:52 still to go.
Three free throws from Kuklok in the ensuing possessions got the Wolverines back to within nine at the 8:23 mark, and Utah Valley eventually worked its way back to within eight at the 6:55 mark after two inside scores from Loggins and Rhaiah Spooner-Knight.
But the deficit came back to double-digits when Utah's Ciera Dunbar canned her third 3-pointer of the night, putting the Utes up 11, 63-52.
Two more Kuklok free throws got the Wolverines to within nine with 5:35 to play, but it seemed that Utah would coast to the victory when a 5-0 Ute spurt over the ensuing 50 seconds put the home team ahead, 68-54.
Unwilling to go away quietly, though, Utah Valley outscored Utah, 16-13, over the game's last 4:42, even pulling to within five with 31.1 seconds left when Kuklok buried back-to-back threes after a fast-break lay-in from Whitney Jenkins.
"Katie was huge tonight," Nixon said. "It was obvious that Utah tailored their defensive game plan towards her and I'm so proud of the way she kept her composure through it all. It's not easy to have that target on your back, but she found ways to get points and was still such a great teammate."
But Utah would ice the game at the foul line, hitting six freebies to close the game and settle the final score line. For the game, the Wolverines enjoyed a decided advantage at the charity strip, making 25 trips to the foul line compared to just 19 - a figure that bloated as UVU fouled intentionally in the closing seconds - for the home team.
Four players finished in double-figures for Utah, led by 21 points and 13 rebounds from Michelle Plouffe. Emily Potter added 16, while Malia Nawahine and Danielle Rodriguez scored 11 apiece.
Behind a 17-point scoring output from Kukok, Utah Valley went stride-for-stride with Utah in the opening 20 minutes as the two teams went into the locker room knotted at 33-33. The Wolverines trailed by as many as eight in the opening period and faced that very deficit with 7:30 until the halftime buzzer. But UVU doubled up on Utah over the final stretch of the half, scoring 16 of the last 24 points of the half. Kuklok poured in 10 over the final stretch while Sam Loggins added a couple tough buckets inside.
The Wolverines went 4-of-7 from beyond the arc in the opening half, good for 57.1 percent from distance.
With the second of three, 3-game road trips now in the books, Utah Valley returns home for the remainder of the calendar year - a stretch that gets underway this Saturday when Santa Clara rolls into Orem. That game, a 3 p.m. tip at the PE Building, kicks off a four-game homestand for the Wolverines - their longest of the 2013-14 season. The Broncos of SCU make the return trip to Utah Valley after hosting the Wolverines in Santa Clara last season. SCU won that matchup, 80-67, in mid-November of 2012.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.