MORAGA, Calif. — Perhaps it was only fitting that the Utah basketball team should end its season the way it did — blowing a double-digit second-half lead with some tentative and sloppy play down the stretch that resulted in a 70-58 NIT loss to Saint Mary’s Tuesday night.
It’s almost hard to believe that the Utes controlled this game for most of 35 minutes and yet lost by 12 points. In fact they didn’t give up the lead until 3:58 was left in the game, and from there they were steamrolled by the Gaels, who finished the game on a 23-8 run. If you want to go back even further, they outscored the Utes by 35-14 over the final 8:52 of the game.
Utah coach Larry Kryskowiak, who was confident going into the game and happy with his team’s play for the most part, looked a bit shell-shocked after the defeat, saying, “I wasn’t prepared for the end-of-year speech obviously it’s a disappointment for all of us.’’
The Utes played good defense in the first half when they held the Gaels to just 27.6 percent shooting from the field, and they never let leading scorer Brad Waldow be a factor in the game as he was held to just four points on 1-of-7 shooting in 21 minutes. However, they let James Walker III, a 9.5 ppg scorer, get loose for 21 points and reserve center Matt Hodgson make 4-of-4 field goals and block four Utah shots.
The difference in the game was how Utah closed out each half, which was a problem throughout the year. In a road loss at Washington State, the Utes took a 21-9 lead, only to score three points over the final six minutes to let the Cougars into the game. In a loss at Arizona State, the Utes had an eight-point lead late in the first half, but made some poor turnovers and let the Sun Devils back in the game.
“It’s a 13-point lead with four minutes to go before halftime and all of a sudden it’s seven,'' said Krystkowiak. "There was a correlation every time — we get a little sloppy, and try to throw a tricky lob pass whatever it is, it wasn’t good basketball. We’ll take a good look at it and try to improve."
The Utes also had trouble finishing several games — losses to Oregon by two, WSU by three, ASU by four, an overtime loss to Colorado, an overtime loss to Arizona and a one-point loss to Stanford. In each of those games, the Utes had chances to win but failed to execute in the final minute.
“Believe me, I’m going to take a close look and try to figure it out,’’ Krystkowiak said of his team’s late-game struggles. “That’s going to be one of my missions in the offseason, evaluating the situations and films, looking back on it and see where the turning points were and making sure from a coaching point of view I don’t make those same mistakes again.
“We’ll do everything from a coaching standpoint to try to put it together with them next year and try not to have the same recurring theme. Part of it is learning how to win, whether it’s ahead, behind, whatever it is.’’
The future looks bright for the Utes, who return all five starters — Jordan Loveridge, Delon Wright, Princeton Onwas, Dallin Bachynski and Brandon Taylor — and top reserves such as Dakarai Tucker, Jeremy Olsen and Kenneth Ogbe. The only senior was Renan Lenz, who played sparingly down the stretch, and the only other player who won’t be back is freshman Parker Van Dyke, who is expected to go on an LDS mission.
But Krystkowiak said his team must get better in the offseason.
“Having a lot of guys back does not lead to being successful the next year,’’ he said. “That’s the biggest mistake we can make, saying, ‘Oh we’ve got everybody back except (Lenz)’ and expect some kind of success out of it. That’s not the ticket. Hopefully we’re a year older and a year wiser and our bodies will be stronger. We’ve got to improve in a lot of areas to get better.’’
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