MORAGA, Calif. — Just when it looked like the Utah basketball team was going to put last week’s horrible loss to Arizona in its rearview mirror with a win in the NIT Tuesday night, the Runnin' Utes blew a 10-point second-half lead and lost 70-58 to Saint Mary’s at McKeon Pavilion.
The Utes had led throughout the game and were up by as many as 10 points in the second half, but like they often did this year, they couldn’t stand prosperity and let the Gaels take over the game with a late 13-0 run. Over the final 10 minutes of the game, Saint Mary's outscored Utah by a whopping 21 points, 35-14.
With the loss, the Utes’ season is over at 21-12, while the Gaels (23-11) move on to play Minnesota Sunday in Minneapolis in the second round of the NIT.
Turnovers were the biggest bugaboo for the Utes as they ended up with a season-high 21, with 11 in the first half and 10 in the second. The Utes' defense also disappeared in the second half as the Utes allowed the Gaels to shoot 65.2 percent after going 27.6 in the first half.
"The turnovers just killed us,'' said Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak. "They got 22 points off them. Defensively we were really good in the first half and in the second half we had some breakdowns in the pick-and-roll coverage and didn't play with the same intensity and they got to the rim with layups.''
James Walker III, who came into the game averaging just 9.5 points per game, scored 21 points for the Gaels and Stephen Holt added 15, while Jordan Loveridge scored 16 for Utah and Brandon Taylor added 14 for the Utes. Delon Wright had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but he also had six of Utah's turnovers, while Taylor had five.
The Utes had led by as many as 13 points in the first half and 10 in the second half, but it all fell to pieces in the final 10 minutes.
Utah led 44-35 with 10:51 left, but the Gaels came storming back as Matt Hodgson scored back-to-back baskets inside to cut the lead to five at 44-39.
Then Holt went to work with back-to-back three-point plays on drives to the basket, the latter bringing the Gaels within one at 48-47 with 5:43 left. On the next time down the floor, Holt was whistled with an offensive foul and left the game, which looked like break for the Utes.
But that didn’t deter the Gaels who, after back-to-back turnovers by Wright, took their first lead of the night at 52-50 on consecutive layups by Kerry Carter.
After Walker made a pair of free throws, Levesque and Carter made back-to-back 3-pointers — and just like that it was 60-50 with 2:13 left.
"We couldn't get stops, they got a couple of and-ones and we turned the ball over way too many times,'' said Wright. "We get too comfortable with the lead sometimes, that's been a problem all year.''
"It was a little bit of a perfect storm,'' said Krystkowiak. "It was tough to finish it off. We've got a lot of improvement to do. We need to come back and figure out how to win basketball games.''
The Utes were coming off a disheartening 71-39 loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. They came out like they had a chip on their shoulder, racing to a quick 11-0 lead four minutes into the game, as Princeton Onwas made a three-point play, Loveridge and Taylor made 3-pointers and Loveridge sank a 15-footer.
The Gaels woke up and cut the lead to one at 13-12, but the Utes regrouped pushed the lead to 30-17 at the 3:54 mark, thanks to a 9-0 run.
But they couldn’t score the rest of the half as Taylor committed back-to-back turnovers and Onwas had a pair of miscues. The Gaels had to feel good going into the locker room down just seven knowing it could have easily been 15.
Saint Mary’s only shot 27.6 percent in the first half, compared to Utah’s 52.6, but the Utes’ 11 first-half turnovers negated the big shooting edge. The Utes won the rebounding battle in the first half 19-12 as Dallin Bachynski had seven boards.
Although the Gaels had momentum going into halftime, the Utes didn’t let it continue early in the second half. Saint Mary's didn't manage to get closer than seven until a basket by Walker cut the margin to six at 41-35 with 11:08 left.
However, Dakarai Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the right wing and then Wright blocked what looked like a sure basket by the Gaels’ Levesque. Soon after that, it all went haywire for the Utes.
The Utes are expected to return everyone next year except senior Renan Lenz and Parker Van Dyke, who is going on an LDS mission.
"We've got to improve in a lot of areas and skill development is going to be a big thing,'' said Krystkowiak. "Part of it is learning how to win. We'll take a good look at it.''