SALT LAKE CITY — Just when it looked like things might be going their way, reality bit the Utah Utes. Being shorthanded took a toll in Thursday's 77-51 loss to Arizona in the Huntsman Center.
In their first game without Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, who led the Utes in scoring, assists and steals before being dismissed from the squad earlier this week for violating unspecified team rules, the Utes managed to go toe-to-toe with the Wildcats for more than a half.
Things then took a turn.
The combination of Watkins' absence, an illness that limited valuable reserve Javon Dawson to an ineffective 10 minutes of play and Arizona's outside shooting quickly evaporated a competitive situation.
However, the turning point didn't really fit with the storyline. It started after Arizona star Solomon Hill was ejected for a flagrant foul with 18:14 left to play and the Wildcats clinging to a narrow lead. Hill threw an elbow that hit Cedric Martin in the back of the head, sending the Utah forward to the locker room for several minutes.
Alex Mortensen stepped in for Martin, who eventually returned to the game but was later being evaluated for a concussion, and hit two free throws as the Utes pulled to within 35-32.
That's when things turned ugly.
Arizona went on a decisive 20-2 run over the next 6:07 to pull away handily. The Wildcats hit four 3-pointers during the outburst. They outrebounded the Utes 5-1 in the span and forced four turnovers.
"I don't think it was related to the altercation at all. I think it was related to us kind of running out of gas," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. "We've been riding those ponies for quite a while. It's kind of like a heavyweight fight. I think when it starts getting into the later rounds you can only take so many body punches."
Arizona's depth proved to be a factor with 10 players scoring and 14 seeing action in the lopsided affair.
"Our legs kind of got hit a little and we kind of got winded. Shots were going their way, we were turning it over and they were hitting home runs," said Utah guard Chris Hines. "We always felt we had a chance in the game. There was never a time where we felt we were out of it, but obviously the momentum went their way instead of our way."
Center Jason Washburn agreed.
"I think everyone's hit it right on the nail. We were short a few guys. We really tried to run them. We really tried to get them tired and I think our legs just wore out on us for a little bit," he said. "You give into fatigue and you start turning the ball the over. You give a team like Arizona a little bit of momentum and all of a sudden they're just hitting shots and can't miss. It just got away from us in a hurry."
Arizona coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats (13-6, 4-2) "answered like you would want a team to answer" after losing Hill and seizing control of the game.
Krystkowiak, meanwhile, noted that Utah's bench is a little bit thin right now and the Utes have got to get some of the guys to come in and make an impact.
The reserves accounted for just three points.
All of Utah's starters logged 25 minutes or more. Washburn topped the team with 14 points and six rebounds. True freshman Kareem Storey added 10 points and six assists in place of Watkins as the starting point guard.
Washburn said Storey did a "real solid job" of attacking the basket and creating plays for his teammates.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough.
"We ended up coming up a little bit short," Storey said. "But as a team I felt like we were coming together."
Krystkowiak acknowledged things will be different without Watkins on the floor.
"We're going to have to manufacture stuff as a group. We don't have the terminating point guard that will finish something with pick-and-roll. So it's going to have to be done collectively," Krystkowiak said while expressing a desire to put all talk about Watkins to rest. "Our screening is going to have to improve and guys are going to have to make plays. Everybody is going to have to carry a little bit of swagger and have confidence in their ability and just continue to play.
"I think for the most part, we're moving the ball pretty well but we just need to find that ending to it," he added. "I think a lot of times that comes with a point guard like Jiggy, but we'll make due."
Arizona led 33-28 at halftime despite shooting just 37.5 percent from the field. The Wildcats countered their shooting woes with a 21-13 rebounding advantage and eight second-chance points.
It wasn't enough, however, to knock Utah out of contention. Trailing by 10 with less than 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the first half, the Utes rallied with an 11-2 run to close the gap to 23-22. Storey and Washburn each had four points in the burst, while Hines added three.
The score remained tight until Kyle Fogg hit two 3-pointers in 19 seconds to give Arizona a 33-26 lead. Utah responded with a basket by Washburn down the stretch to cap all scoring in the half.
The Utes (4-14, 1-5) return to action Saturday at home against Arizona State. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m.
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