First Published Jan 14 2017 07:54PM • Updated 8 hours ago • Article Link
The No. 8 basketball team in the Pac-12's preseason media poll could have, and maybe should have, beaten the No. 4-ranked club in the country, leaving the Utah Utes to wonder what else they might have done Saturday. Utah's performance raised another question, to be answered only in the coming months: How much value is there in a loss?
Utah looked every bit like an NCAA Tournament team for most of 40 minutes in an 83-82 loss to UCLA at the Huntsman Center. The trouble is the Utes will never have another chance like this one to improve their postseason credentials, and it got away from them in the end.
The Utes (12-5) couldn't deliver what would have been the most memorable win of the program's Pac-12 history. So they'll have to live with a missed opportunity, amid everything they did so well for so long against a very good opponent.
"I'm pretty pissed that we lost," Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said, if any clarification was necessary.
Even the last second of the game provided one of the biggest, if only temporary, thrills in a game that featured a bunch of them. Some percentage of the 15,027 fans cheered wildly when Lorenzo Bonam caught Kyle Kuzma's pass from the opposite baseline and tossed in a shot. The problem is Bonam's buzzer-beater, like most 8-footers, counted for only two points.
Krystkowiak is convinced Bonam was fouled on the play. Such a call may have extended an exhilarating, exhausting game marked by emotional swings, spectacular plays and clutch moments in a packed, loud arena. Asked about the greatest value of Pac-12 membership, former Utah coach Jim Boylen said, "UCLA in the Huntsman Center."
Boylen never got to coach in this conference, but Saturday's game clearly is what he had in mind. Ute fans were treated to what's likely their only look at UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball, who posted 17 points and eight assists.
Yet with five players scoring in double figures, the Utes almost overcame UCLA's best stuff. Utah lost the nine-point lead that came from an 11-0 run to start the second half, but answered most of the Bruins' baskets in the final few minutes.
Not even the Utah-Arizona battles of the previous two seasons could match the offensive artistry and overall intensity of a game ultimately decided by the Bruins' consecutive 3-pointers by Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday and a defensive stand that stemmed from coach Steve Alford's shrewd strategy.
The absence of whistles, the element that made this game so much fun to watch, contributed to the weird finish. Because the Utes were not in the bonus, UCLA fouled them three times — twice more than NBA rules would allow, for the sake of discussion — in a sequence that began with 12.9 seconds left and the Bruins leading by one point. The ultimate result was Kuzma's having to launch a twisting 3-pointer from the right wing, with the Bruins' Thomas Welsh rebounding the ball and making two free throws with one second left.
The Utes then got a better look on a play that started 94 feet from the basket than they did on the previous play from the baseline under the UCLA basket. Imagine if Utah had trailed by anything less than three points, and Bonam had hit a tying or winning shot. As it is, anyone would wonder why he even was standing that close to the basket. But what if he had been fouled?
"As flukish as it was, I do think he got hit on the arm," Krystkowiak said. But "I don't want to have a headline that we got robbed, because we had plenty of opportunities."
The Utes probably should have saved Bonam's miraculous shot for another day, such as Oregon's visit Jan. 26. Utah clearly is a different team with transfers Sedrick Barefield and David Collette having become eligible in mid-December, but there's no replaying (or upgrading) the nonconference schedule at this point.
All anyone knows for sure is Utah is much better than the Pac-12's eighth-best team. "I'm going to be real: That's disrespectful," said Bonam, one of three returnees from the league's second-place team last season.
Bonam figures those voters are "starting to change their minds" about the Utes. Those who watched them play Saturday undoubtedly were left with the most favorable impression that any loss could create. But a win would have done Utah a lot more good.