SALT LAKE CITY — After a second narrow loss to Arizona this season, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak used a baseball reference as an analogy. It came in the wake of Sunday’s 68-64 loss to the ninth-ranked Wildcats in the Huntsman Center.
“We’re not an easy out, I don’t think, and I think our guys rise to the occasion,” Krystkowiak said. “When you play a top 10 team, whether it’s in front of the Tucson (Ariz.) fans or these folks here, I think our guys rise up to it.”
As was the case in a 60-57 loss at Arizona on Jan. 5, Utah battled until the very end. The Utes had opportunities to pull off the upset.
“It came down to a couple of plays here and there,” Krystkowiak said. “I’m proud of our guys.”
Krystkowiak added that he was encouraged that the Utes (11-14, 3-10) came back against the Wildcats (21-4, 9-4) and that they were a couple of plays away from prevailing.
Arizona’s Mark Lyons finished with a game-high 18 points. Jarred DuBois and Jason Washburn had 16 and 15, respectively, for Utah.
“We fought. I liked the way our team fought. We fought to the end,” Washburn said. “We got down back in the second half and came back. We got stops and scores. We just came up short.”
Coming close, though, was no comfort to the senior center.
“We’re not going to be happy that we only lost by four to the No. 9 team,” Washburn said. “I’m not going to accept that from ourselves.”
The loss cost the Utes a chance to win back-to-back Pac-12 games (they defeated Arizona State on Wednesday) for the first time since joining the conference last season.
Trailing by 13 early in the second half, Utah mounted a comeback that eventually led to a 51-51 standstill with Arizona. The Utes’ 21-8 run featured mass contributions. Jeremy Olsen, who wound up with 12 points by game’s end, led the rally with six. Washburn added five and Jordan Loveridge chipped in four. Dakarai Tucker and DuBois contributed 3-pointers.
Washburn wound up knotting things up on a tip-in with 7:28 left to play.
The Utes, however, were never able to get over the hump after that. They gave up five baskets, five offensive rebounds, four defensive rebounds, missed three free throws and turned the ball over twice — allowing Arizona to escape with the victory.
The Wildcats pulled ahead for good on a layup by Solomon Hill with 6:13 to go. They went on to lead by seven in the closing seconds.
“I don’t think any team in the conference enjoys the trip to Utah because they know it is going to be a tough battle,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “We are happy with the win, but our team continues to make the same mistakes we made two months ago. We have to get better as we move forward if we want to accomplish something special in March."
Krystkowiak called it a game of two halves. The Utes, he explained, did a great job on the glass before the break. They just couldn’t get the Wildcats to miss enough shots. In the second half, Krystkowiak pointed out that the Utes got them to misfire but were unable to rebound effectively.
“Unfortunately both of those are part of defense,” he said.
Although the score was tied thee times in the first half, Arizona never trailed while building a 33-25 halftime lead. A 3-point shot by Hill with 12:56 remaining in the half ignited a 19-8 run that allowed the Wildcats to pull away. They led by as many as 12 at one point.
Arizona shot 50 percent from the field, making 11 of 22 shots including five 3-pointers. Utah, meanwhile, struggled with its shooting in the opening half. The Utes missed 17 of their 27 attempts (37 percent) and were outscored 6-0 in second-chance opportunities.
“There’s a reason they’re at the top of the league,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re not going to hold everybody under 40 percent. We had a combination of some breakdowns and they have good players that can make some shots.”
Utah now faces a three-game road trip. The Utes take on Colorado Thursday before heading to California and Stanford the following week. Then they’ll close out the regular season with home games against Oregon State (March 7) and Oregon (March 9). The Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas begins March 13.
“I think our guys are going to keep their spirits up and we’re going to keep piling through this thing — three on the road, two at home — and then lay it on the line in Las Vegas,” Krystkowiak said. “So we're just kind of continuing to build.”
Krystkowiak acknowledged that the close loss was frustrating. He noted that it would have been a big win.
“Like a lot of times this year, it’s been kind of that fine line coming down to a few little things,” Krystkowiak said.
EXTRA STUFF: Announced attendance for Utah’s second-ever Sunday home game was 11,712. The crowd included former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. ... It was “Salute America Day” with military personnel and first responders being honored. ... Arizona has seven straight wins over Utah. The Utes, however, lead the all-time series 28-25.
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