As Utah's 11-point lead over eighth-ranked Wichita State melted away in startlingly quick fashion during Wednesday night's final five minutes, the Utes surely experienced a sickening case of déjà vu.
Eight of Utah's nine games decided by four points or fewer last season ended in losses. The Utes certainly didn't want to allow that alarming trend to carry over to this season and cost them a marquee non-league win in the process.
Utah somehow avoided that fate and emerged with a 69-68 overtime victory despite allowing Wichita State to storm back and take a two-point lead in the final minute of regulation. The Utes fueled that comeback with defensive lapses and turnovers but showed impressive resolve to recover, tying the game on a pair of Dakarai Tucker free throws and then making the biggest plays in overtime against an opponent that had not lost a game in the regular season since March 2, 2013.
Wichita State led by one with less than 30 seconds to play in overtime when Utah point guard Delon Wright drove into the lane, faked a spin to the right and hit a short go-ahead jump shot. The Shockers had several chances in the final seconds, but point guard Fred VanVleet missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with seven seconds remaining and forward Evan Wessel rushed his put-back attempt, dooming Wichita State to its first regular-season loss after 35 straight wins.
That Utah could upset Wichita State without standout wing Jordan Loveridge is a testament to how far the Utes have come the past few years.
Larry Krystkowiak inherited such a threadbare roster in 2010 that Utah lost 25 games his debut season despite playing a non-league schedule better suited for a Division II team. The Utes have steadily upgraded their discipline, talent level and schedule ever since, a process that culminates this season when the six top scorers from last year's 21-win team are joined by highly touted group of freshmen.
At point guard is Delon Wright, a do-everything NBA prospect who guards multiple positions, creates for himself or his teammates off the dribble and boasts a developing outside shot. Manning the paint are two formidable 7 footers, one a blossoming NBA prospect and the other a standout defender and rebounder capable of protecting the rim. And then there are an array of forwards and wings, many of whom defend well and can knock down open threes
While centers Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski controlled the offensive glass against undersized Wichita State and guards Tucker and Brandon Taylor combined for six threes, the biggest reason Utah won was because of its defense. The Utes made it difficult for the Shockers to generate good looks at the basket and held them to anemic 38 percent shooting from the field.
Ron Baker had an efficient 15-point game and Tekele Cotton delivered 14 points, but the third member of Wichita State's vaunted backcourt struggled mightily. Fred VanVleet needed 19 shots to score 13 points and missed a handful of shots he normally makes, only catching fire for a brief spurt late in regulation as the Shockers were launching their comeback.
Utah halted Wichita State's momentum in overtime and emerged with a victory that solidifies the Utes as the clear-cut top challenger to Arizona in an otherwise wide-open Pac-12.
The development of Wright and Loveridge and the emergence of Poeltl as a defensive anchor in the frontcourt gives Utah a chance to enjoy a breakout season. All the Utes have to do is prove they can do one thing that eluded them last year: Close out tight games in the final minutes.
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