SALT LAKE CITY — In losing its first four Pac-12 games earlier this month, the Utah women’s basketball team struggled with its field goal shooting, making just 34 percent from the floor.
The Utes improved greatly, to 50 percent Friday night against Arizona, but this time it was free throw shooting that hurt them. In fact, it cost them the game in a tough 62-58 loss at the Huntsman Center.
Utah missed three free throws in the final 29 seconds, including two on the front end of one-and-ones. Were the Utes to make those, they'd go home smiling as they await Arizona State Sunday afternoon.
Instead, the Utes fell to 0-5 with their sixth straight loss and to 9-7 on what began as a very promising season.
“It’s real frustrating to lose a game that way,’’ said Utah coach Anthony Levrets. “Our kids are hurting right now. You shoot 50 percent from the floor in your home building and you feel like you have a chance to win.’’
The Utes had battled back from an early eight-point deficit and led 58-57 after Iwalani Rodrigues made the first of two foul shots with 29 seconds left. However after a timeout, she missed the second.
When the Utes got the ball on alternate possession after a tie-up, Michelle Plouffe was fouled with 26 seconds left. But she missed the front end of a one-and-one and at the other end, Arizona star player Davellyn Whyte, who led all scorers with 23 points, scored inside and was fouled.
Her free throw made it 60-58 with 14 seconds left, and the Utes had one more chance to tie the game when Rachel Messer was fouled with 8.4 seconds left. However, Messer’s shot clanked off the back of the rim and the Wildcats’ Layana White hit two free throws with 4.5 seconds left to seal the victory.
Levrets called the free throw misses “very weird” and noted that his team spent more time than ever shooting this summer, including “thousands’’ of free throws.
“We feel it is a strength of our team, and early in the season it was,’’ he said. “But basketball is a crazy game, and right now we can’t buy a bucket when we need one.’’
Plouffe had made 76 percent of her free throws over her first two seasons at Utah, but only made 2 of 4 Friday night and fell to 63 percent on the season.
“It’s just the way it goes,’’ Plouffe said. “You can shoot all the free throws you want in practice, but game situations is a little bit different.’’
Plouffe led the Utes with 18 points, while Rodrigues had 16 and Taryn Wicijowski added 12.
Besides Whyte’s 23 points for Arizona (11-6, 3-2), Carissa Crutchfield had 11 points. The Wildcats outrebounded Utah 31-27 and had 15 steals on the night.