No. 13 Utah displays ability to finish after struggling to close out tight games last season

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One week after beating No. 11 Wichita State 69-68 in overtime, No. 13 Utah played the second game in an incredibly difficult three-game stretch. Sandwiched in between games against the Shockers and No. 10 Kansas was a meeting with rival BYU, and it was anything but a “trap game” for the Utes. The presence of the rivalry game at this point in the schedule demanded that Utah show up at the Marriott Center in Provo ready to go, and Larry Krystkowiak’s team answered the challenge.

It wasn’t the smoothest of games for the Utes, who committed 15 turnovers on the night, but thanks to versatile senior guard Delon Wright and some solid defense Utah managed to pick up the 65-61 road victory.

Wright finished the game with 18 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals, and he was Utah’s lone double-digit scorer. Yet even with that being the case all ten Utes who played in the game scored, and as a team Utah shot 45.8% from the field. Add in the fact that Utah managed to attempt 20 more free throws than BYU, a discrepancy that’s almost unheard of for a visiting team, and the Utes were able to win despite being minus-8 in turnover margin with the Cougars scoring 24 points off of those turnovers.

The problem for BYU was what happened on offensive possessions that didn’t begin with a Utah turnover. The Utes were able to make life difficult for BYU’s primary scoring options, most notably senior guard Tyler Haws. Haws finished with a game-high 23 points, but he needed 22 field goal attempts (making nine) to score those points. Just as importantly Utah kept him from getting to the foul line, as Haws attempted just three free throws on the night.

As a team BYU shot 36.9% from the field and 7-for-20 from three, with both percentages a far cry from what BYU has shot for the entire season (47.8% FG, 39.7% 3PT). BYU struggled to make shots Wednesday night, with Utah’s ability to dictate what shots the Cougars got being a reason why.

“Tonight, we got really scattered,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said after the game. “We were shooting quick shots, not shots that we were looking for, but shots that were available. A lot of that had to do with them taking us out of our sets, because we’re a pretty systematic team. We need to do a better job.”

Dealing with increased expectations and winning close games are two things that can be tough for a team looking to make the jump from merely being competitive to being a conference contender and NCAA tournament team. Utah went 3-8 in games decided by six points or less a season ago, with their inability to close out games combining with a subpar non-conference slate to send the Utes to the Postseason NIT. Krystkowiak addressed the scheduling issue, loading up the Utes’ non-conference slate with games that will both test them and provide opportunities for wins that will help their resume come March.

As for their play in close games, improving in that area was up to the players. Wright and his fellow returnees needed to make progress in their execution, maturity and toughness, while also shepherding a talented group of newcomers led by freshman center Jakob Poeltl. Through eight games Utah has the look of a team that has done just that, and as a result the Utes are one win away from sweeping a difficult trio of games.

“I’m pleased with our young kids and their ability to focus,” Krystkowiak noted following the game. “I think some of our veteran leadership down the stretch probably saved us. We just need to make some plays.

“Everybody wants to know how we’re winning some close games. Sometimes it’s a little bit of luck. Sometimes it’s a little bit of maturity with some guys being back for another year. Either way we go, we’re thrilled to be where we are.”