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Houston • It didn't have to hurt this much.
The Utes knew the odds were against them. They knew they'd need their best to beat the Duke Blue Devils, with their five-star recruits and their storied history of March success.
But what the Utes brought wasn't their best and that stung more than anything.
With a chance to go to the program's first Elite Eight in 17 years, the Utes struggled. They threw passes to empty space. They air-balled. They buckled early.
So, despite a late rally, one that offered a slight glimmer of hope, the Utes couldn't overcome Duke in a 63-57 loss. A season of inspiration, one that saw Utah's respectability restored in its first Sweet 16 berth in 10 years, came to an end.
"It was tough, I feel like we could've won that game," Delon Wright said. "It's just one of those games when the team's not clicking."
Wright and Dallin Bachynski, the two seniors who oversaw the great rebuilding project, watched their careers end with a bumpy finish. Wright had 10 points in an ugly shooting night, while Bachynski helped prop up Utah's flagging comeback hopes with 11 points at a critical juncture.
But there were no tears as they came off the raised court at NRG Stadium. Bachynski simply held up a finger and pointed to the clapping section of Utes fans.
"I wish I could have left a little more out there," Bachynski said. "I think we all have some regrets from the game. We would like a redo."
Some will blame officiating maybe a few missed travels, a few sketchy calls, and one whistle that benched Utah's star but the Utes just wanted a mulligan shooting the ball. They hit only 35 percent of their shots from the floor, and made only one 3-pointer in the first 33 minutes of the game.
Utah also had 15 turnovers.
The Utes trailed by as much as 15 with eight minutes left, appearing to be all out of pitches. But as Duke slowed down the game to run clock, the Utes finally found some life for a 9-0 run that put them back in it.
Justise Winslow, one of Duke's trio of star freshmen, helped close the door on Utah. The 6-foot-6 Houston native had 21 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, helping the Blue Devils prevail. It also helped that Duke made 20 of 26 free throws, sealing the result from the line.
The Utes trailed by five and got the ball back on a Quinn Cook travel with 9.9 seconds left. But on the inbounds play, Jordan Loveridge couldn't get a 3-ball to sink a common trend on the night and Duke got the ball back, getting the win as well.
The game had been lost in the cold stretches before, but the Utes were glad to at least go down swinging.
"I know none of our guys are quitters," Bachynski said. "I know we're going to keep fighting, keep going, give it everything we've got."
It was one of the few games with a truly crucial moment in the first half.
Wright was hit by whistles early, heading to the bench within the first 10 minutes with two fouls. The Utes rolled the dice and put him back in, and he picked up his third foul in a scrap for a loose ball with Winslow.
The Utes were pressed into playing the last 4:59 of the half without their star, and Duke brought its own pressure to scoop up four turnovers in four minutes.
Bachynski steadied the Utes in the storm, scoring the final five points of the half and helping protect the rim against Okafor. Despite losing Wright in the last stretch, Utah trailed only 27-22 at the half.
The Utes finished the year 26-9, their best season in a decade. The signs point upward, but only minutes after the loss, coach Larry Krystkowiak said he couldn't picture anything beyond returning to Salt Lake City and spending a little more time with the team that had restored some luster to the program.
"I'm in decompress mode," he said. "Enjoyed the experience with these kids. I'm going to soak that up for a little while."
R Utah shoots 35 percent from the floor, Duke shoots 44.4 percent.
• Justise Winslow scores 21 points and adds 10 rebounds.
• Brandon Taylor leads Utah with 15 points.