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December 10, 2011In an ugly, low-scoring affair, Utah lost its sixth straight contest to the Cougars 61-42 Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center. Rarely could a 19-point loss be classified as a moral victory, but in sharp contrast to last Wednesday's 31 point loss to a Big West conference team in Cal-State Fullerton, Utah fought BYU from tip-off to the buzzer.
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak would certainly not be the type to call the loss a moral victory, which he immediately decried in post-game comments, he admittedly saw his team in a different light after his team's Saturday afternoon performance.
"The ability to play hard, I truly believed was a skill that maybe we didn't have. Because I think [playing hard] is a skill," admitted Krystkowiak. "They showed us that they have that skill, so they've raised the bar a little higher. Now I can expect them to play harder, more consistently."
Utah has lost its last two games by 30 points or more, and it's last three by an average of 27 points. As the highest quality opponent Utah has faced all season, BYU figured to be a blowout of epic proportions.
An uncharacteristic poor game by BYU certainly played into Utah avoiding the blowout, which doesn't change the fact that Utah made some significant improvements and finally can take some positives from the game and look to build on them.
For the 1-8 Utes, that hasn't happened much this season. As such, they'll take what they can, where they can.
"I can walk out of the Huntsman tonight feeling ten times different than I felt, and not because it's BYU or anything like that, but just that I saw the effort," Krystkowiak said. "If we're going to go down, we need to go down swinging. I felt like at least we gave ourselves the opportunity to have that happen tonight."
The 8-2 Cougars averaged 78.8 points per game coming into the Huntsman Center, and were held to just 61 points; a real coup for the Utes who have struggled defensively all season long. As evidence of that, Utah allows opponents an average score of 77.4.
Lacking DI talent, an inside presence and scorers, the 2011 Utah team must hang its hat on effort, intensity and defense to survive. Ten games in, Krystkowiak and Utah fans alike must wonder aloud if the effort the Utes gave Saturday will be enough, or whether or not there is even a choice. Still, Krystkowiak is encouraged by his team's performance.
"I have a lot brighter outlook at the moment than if had asked me that question at any point up until now. Playing hard [and losing] is something I can handle," he conceded.
Perhaps the biggest improvement from last game to this, was in rebounding, where Utah was out-rebounded 45-18. At halftime, Utah led BYU 21-19 in that category, and was out-rebounded by just six (41-35) against BYU.
Ute players couldn't pinpoint exactly where the energy came from, with some pointing to the rivalry as motivation, and others, newcomers, pointing to playing for the guy next to him.
And so, through hardship and an eight-game skid, perhaps Utah is finally becoming a team where many questioned that very basic fact, considering the product put on the floor of the Huntsman Center.
"To me, to look at my team, at my family, my brothers and see that we're all playing this hard on defense was what it was for me," said Dawson. "If we can play that hard on defense, the offense is going to come. As you know, great defense brings offense. Great defense leads into transition buckets, and it goes from there."
For the Utes, the full-game, team effort seemed to turn a light on, as the three Ute players available for post-game remarks seemed surprised themselves at what the team might be able to do with effort, teamwork, and sticking to the coaching staff's game plan.
"We have to do give this effort every single game, and we have to not start slowly and we have to stick to the game plan," said Martin. "Coming in, we had a very good game plan, and we stuck with it, from start to finish. So those are things that we need to keep doing and take from this game."
Despite poor shot selection, combined with missed open shots, Utah was down by just eight at halftime, and hung around through the first portion of the second half, down by as little as ten points at the 12:09 mark of the closing half.
A big key, and another positive to take away from the loss is how much easier it is to compete when not starting from a big hole. In what has become a calling card of Utah basketball, the tendency is to start slow and start games with a deficit, more often than not, too large to overcome.
"I think we came out with our best defensive play early. We came out of the game hard and didn't give the other team an advantage right off the start," said junior wing Cedric Martin. "We came out with a lot of energy, and that's how we need to come out every game."
Saturday, Utah jumped out to a 5-1 lead with all the breaks and balls bouncing its way and BYU missing its first six shots. After a layup by Jason Washburn and a three pointer by Josh Watkins, Utah missed its next seven shots, committed four turnovers and did not score for nearly six minutes. Freshman Kareem Storey, who finished with six points hit consecutive layups to pull within two points of the Cougars.
After the short scoring spurt, Utah missed its next nine shots from the field, but survived on free throws to ride out the half.
For Utah, senior point guard Josh Watkins had a team-high 14 points, five assists and five rebounds in his return after a short-lived suspension from the team.
Junior college transfer Cedric Martin chipped in 10 points and three rebounds, while Jason Washburn and Storey each finished with six points. After getting in early foul trouble, Washburn went missing for much of the game, logging just 18 minutes and only three rebounds in the contest.
With Washburn out, Dijon Farr and Javon Dawson each posted career-high minutes with 32 and 19, respectively. Martin also had a career-high 35 minutes.
With some positives to take away and build on, Krystkowiak looks to a rare stretch of straight practice, rather than opponent preparation, as the Utes' next game isn't until Friday, December 16 at the Huntsman Center versus Idaho State.
"We've got four straight days of practice that we can work out some of the fundamentals that we've got problems with, and be less game-specific," said Krystkowiak. "Then we've got a couple of teams coming in here. Heading into Pac-12 play is going to be a whole other ball game, but we'd like to get a little bit better taste in our mouth before Christmas."