Every team hopes to avoid the let-down game, that game where a previously emotional loss leads to another, and possibly another. After Utah's wire-to-wire heartbreaking loss to Pac-12 champion Arizona last Saturday, the stage was set for a let-down game. However, Utah's opponent Thursday night was Washington State, the third worst team in the conference. The problem was someone forgot to tell the Cougars they were supposed to lay down.
All season long, Utah had avoided the "bad loss," the major blemish on an otherwise stellar regular season record. But as Utah sleep-walked through much of the first half, getting down by as much as seven points early on and scoring just 23 points at the half, tied with a team that was 12-16 overall, fans feared the outcome. Utah's offense struggled, to say the least, finishing the half shooting just 29.6 percent from the field, 20 percent from three-point range (2-of-10).
All Pac-12 guard Delon Wright looked like the only factor keeping Utah in the game in the first frame, finishing with nine of the team's 23 points.
In the second half, Utah started with a dunk by starting power forward Chris Reyes, but Washington State went inside and torched Utah's bigs. Jakob Poeltl was in foul trouble the entire game, but neither he nor backup Dallin Bachynski, nor third-stringer Jeremy Olsen could keep the Cougars from scoring in the lane. Wazzu built up an eight-point lead by the 13:35 mark, and they looked poised to run away from the visiting Utes.
But Wright said no, hitting a three-pointer (for the game, he was 2-of-3 from deep) and cutting the lead quickly to five. Back-to-back threes from back-up point guard Isaiah Wright and reserve wing Dakari Tucker pulled the Utes to within three. In fact, it was the long ball that really proved to be the salvation for the Utes. Utah shot 55 percent in the second period, including a scorching 66.7 percent (8-of-12) from behind the arc. In fact, it was two three-pointers from starting point guard Brandon Taylor that tied the game at 48-48 at the 6:27 mark and put the Utes ahead 53-50 at the 4:55 mark that really turned the game for Utah. The No. 13 team in the country, a team on high upset alert most of the game, never trailed after that.
Wright led the Utes with 18 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two blocks, and one steal. Loveridge chipped in 16 more points (3-of-4 from trifecta land), and Taylor added 11 points, four rebounds, and two assists.
It wasnt pretty, but the Utes survived. They're still in position to claim the second seed in the Pac-12 tournament, which is important heading into the NCAAs. But Oregon is still right on their heels, one game back, and, apparently, with the tie-breaker. Utah cannot afford to stumble against teams it clearly should beat (even beat badly). However, stumbling but not falling can be forgiven.
Poeltl and the PIPs:
Points in the Paint were concerning last night. Washington State out-scored Utah in the lane 26-16, dominating the Utes interior defense. Wazzu has a couple good bigs in Josh Hawkinson and Jordan Railey, but they're not as good as the Utes made them look. Hawkinson finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. Railey had 12 points (6-of-10 shooting), including several embarrassing dunks. Utah's bigs need to play with more court awareness, as they got caught looking away from their man and got burned. The Utes also need Poeltl and Bachynski to play with a little attitude. Instead of giving up a posterizing dunk, give up a hard foul. Let the other team know you're there! Instead, Poeltl and Bachynski looked like they could have productive careers as matadors.
Poeltl, especially, needs to make his fouls count. It seems there's a Poeltl rule (for those who remember the Jordan Rules) in the Pac-12 where if the Austrian is anywhere near the play, he'll get a foul, so he might as well make his fouls count for something. There's no reason for a cheap shot, by any means, but make it uncomfortable for a big to even want to take it into the lane. Pac-12 referees reward physical (sometimes overly so) play.
Out-side In Offense:
Utah had an unusually good shooting night from the three-point line in Pullman, something the Utes haven't done on the road. While they didn't chuck up 29 long balls like they did in a loss at Oregon, the made FGs disparity between two-pointers and three-pointers was 9 (twos) to 10 (threes). It's not a matter of how many taken or made, it's a matter of being aware of what the defense is giving you.
Several times last night, Washington State's defense was both bunched around the foul line and pushed out so far on the perimeter shooters that you could have parked a semi trailer in the space behind them. No one from Utah cut back door. No one from Utah looked to execute the lob. None of Utah's bigs spun toward the basket, and, most disturbingly, none of Utah's guards drove toward the baseline. If Washington plays similar defense, Utah has to attack the front court by driving or cutting without the ball. Utah's guards need to look for cutters and driving lanes. Brandon Taylor, especially has to use his speed to make a 6-foot-6 guard pay for coming out to the three-point line.
Utah was sluggish to start the game. Just 23 points were scored in the first half, 44 in the second, nearly doubling the first half production. The No. 13 Utes can't continue to start slowly. Right now, they're snails in the first half, and Turbo in the second. While that might give fans comfort in some respects, it's a bad pattern heading into post-season play. Utah needs to find some spark, some offense, some moxy in their first half against Washington, something that can carry into the Pac-12 tournament, even beyond.
But what can be done? Inserting Brekkot Chapman, or even Kyle Kuzma, into the starting lineup might give the Utes an early boost. Clearly getting Poeltl more opportunities down low doesn't hurt. Lost among the sighs of relief and usually gaudy statistics for Wright is the fact that the team's freshman 7-footer scored 0 points... ZEEEERO... on 0-of-0 shooting. That's a lot of goose eggs, and Utah can't afford to have their talented big go an entire game without get a shot. Washington, without their formerly nation-leading shot blocker, will provide the Utes an opportunity to get Poeltl some confidence and some important touches before the tournaments.