Third time’s a bummer

There are more to the Runnin’ Utes’ problems than just sub-par defense. Tuesday night’s showdown with Colorado made that perfectly clear.

The Utes did what they set out to do after struggling through their first two games of the season: improve their defense. They held the Buffaloes to just 60 points and 41 percent shooting at the Huntsman Center Tuesday, but still fell yet again thanks to a couple of costly late turnovers. The Buffaloes escaped Salt Lake City with a 60-59 squeaker that dropped the Utes to 0-3.

“We’re really disappointed in the loss, but it’s still much better than our last two games,” Luke Nevill said. “We’ve improved?we just have to work on getting crucial stops and just scoring the ball.”

The Utes wanted to distinguish themselves this season–but not by becoming the first Ute squad since 1970-1971 to drop its first three games of the season.

Not that the Utes didn’t have their chances to pick up win No. 1–they just couldn’t capitalize. With less than a minute remaining in a tied ballgame, Colorado guard Richard Roby got whistled for an offensive foul as Ute forward Shaun Green took a fall on the hardwood. But as the Utes tried to set up a potential go-ahead bucket, Lawrence Borha lofted an errant pass into the post that was picked off by Marcus King-Stockton, sending it the other way.

But the Ute defense–which was the silver lining despite the loss–stepped up big. With just five seconds on the clock, King-Stockton found a crease in the paint looked to play the hero once again, but Ute center Luke Nevill rejected his short jumper–the sophomore’s third block of the night.

Once again, though, the Utes’ carelessness with the ball spelled their doom. Ricky Johns took the ball back up the floor in transition but turned it over to Colorado’s Kalvin Bay, who was quickly fouled by Borha.

Bay sank 1-of-2 from the stripe to give the Buffs a one-point lead.

“We turned it over and fouled?but we took a step in the right direction defensively,” Giacoletti said.

Following a pair of Utah timeouts, Borha got a golden opportunity to make up for his earlier foul, but his open three-point attempt sailed long as time expired.

Though 17 turnovers and a horrid offensive first-half (in which the team shot 26 percent) were more than enough to set the Utes back, players and coaches alike felt positive about their performance nonetheless–mainly because, it seems, the team’s increased focus on defense looked like it finally started to pay dividends.

“We were a little bit inept offensively in the first half, but we did a much better job punching gaps in the second half and got some clean looks at it,” Giacoletti said.

Though Colorado’s highly touted Roby scored 22 and grabbed seven rebounds, he was neutralized for much of the contest as the Ute defenders forced him into a tough, oft-awkward shot attempts as he shot just two-of-12 in the first half (eight-of-22 overall).

“I think as a whole team, I think we were focusing on defense,” Nevill said. Although we lost this game, I think we did much better than in our previous games–crashing the glass, not letting them get second shots, things like that.”

After the Utes surprisingly fell to both Southern Utah and Santa Clara to start the season, Giacoletti and his staff put an added premium on improving the team’s defense through practice. In that regard, there were more than enough positives to be taken from Tuesday’s game, despite the final result. In addition to Nevill’s three blocks and 10 rebounds (his first double-double of the season), Shaun Green also came off the bench to block three shots to go along with his 11 points.

But the offense, which wasn’t really the problem during the two earlier losses, couldn’t get into a rhythm until well into the second half.

“We were scoring, but we weren’t getting as much as we normally were on the offensive end,” Nevill said.

Even when the offense did come, it came mostly in the form of Johnnie Bryant.

The junior guard provided a huge spark from the perimeter, knocking down six threes on his way to a team-high 20 points. Two threes early in the second half either tied the game or put Utah on top, and his sixth and final long-range jumper capped off a 10-2 run that, in addition to a five-point lead, seemed to finally give the Utes control.

But they allowed Colorado right back in, and the Buffaloes evened up their record at 2-2 on the season.

Lennie Mahler

Luke Nevill shoots the ball from inside the paint during the Utes’ 60-59 loss to Colorado University at the Huntsman Center on Tuesday. A Colorado free throw gave the Buffaloes the lead in the final seconds of the game.