MINNEAPOLIS — Experience, or lack of it, is sure to be a theme throughout the first part of the Utah Utes’ schedule this year. How quickly the players and coaches adapt will determine how long it remains an issue.
The Utes’ inexperience was on display in key moments on both ends of the court Monday as they lost to Minnesota, 78-69.
“When you have three young kids playing, at the end of the day in basketball you have to have five guys all on the same page,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “If you have one guy that misses an assignment, typically it blows the whole plan, and that was kind of the case tonight. We’ve just got to be cohesive and connected defensively, and offensively.”
Freshman Vante Hendrix and senior Sedrick Barefield each scored 14 for the Utes (1-1), while senior post man Novac Topalovic added 13, including 10 in the first half.
Outside shooting was a big part of the Utes’ downfall Monday. They hit just three of their first 14 3-pointers before going 4 for 7 down the stretch as they scrambled to stay in the game.
Barefield’s night was indicative of the team’s overall — midway through the second half he had just two points on 1-for-7 shooting before finishing with a flourish with 12 points in the game’s final 10 minutes.
Minnesota (2-0) led by as many as 15 in the second half, but the Utes kept chipping away. A 3-pointer and another jumper by Barefield helped whittle the Utah deficit to 62-57 with 6:13 to play. But then the Utes went cold — aided by some suspect shot selection, according to Krystkowiak — and the Gophers were able to keep them at arm’s length the rest of the way.
Entering a hostile environment against an experienced Big Ten team, Krystkowiak was mindful of making sure the Gophers didn’t get a chance to run away from the Utes. So when Minnesota jumped out to a 12-7 lead on a steal and layup by guard Amir Coffey, Krystkowiak quickly called a timeout to stem the tide.
His players responded with a 9-0 run fueled by four points from Topalovic, a Hendrix 3-pointer and a steal and layup by Charles Jones Jr.
“We had to adjust to a lot of things — different balls, different environment, (it was) a little cold. This was the first road game for some of these guys,” said Utah forward Donnie Tillman, who finished with nine points and a team-high nine rebounds. “But that’s basketball for you. You’ve got to adjust right away. The first ball goes up, first couple minutes, OK, we’re settled in.”
For the Gophers, freshman Gabe Kalscheur hit his first five 3-point attempts en route to a game-high 19 points. All five Minnesota starters reached double figures in scoring, while forward Jordan Murphy grabbed 17 rebounds.
The Utes knew that Murphy, a preseason all-Big Ten choice who averaged 16.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game last year, would be a load to handle, and he was. But according to Tillman, Utah’s miscues made it a little too easy for him.
“It was just small breakdowns — little traps we were supposed to set for stopping Murphy, get him off the ball,” Tillman said. “Miscommunication on zone or man. It’s just little things. This game was a two-possession game. Little things matter.”6 comments on this story
One back-breaker in particular essentially put the game away for the Gophers. With just under four minutes to play, the Utes were trailing by seven but were applying strong pressure on a Minnesota possession. As the shot clock ran down, Coffey flipped up a short runner in the lane that rimmed out. But none of the Utes got a body on Coffey, who was able to tip in his own miss and extend Minnesota’s lead to nine.
“We just let a few things go,” Hendrix said. “But we can learn from our mistakes. We’re young.”
Their next chance to show what they’ve learned arrives Thursday when the Utes host Mississippi Valley State at 6 p.m.