This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Somewhere in the vast expanse of football venue NRG Stadium here on Friday night was a big basketball game whose dimensions were made itty-bitty, seen almost as though they were being reflected in a giant side-view mirror.
Picture a 94-foot-by-50-foot court at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
H-Town has always been known for space … and there was plenty of it here, although not of the NASA variety. Houston, we have a problem: Nobody can focus on the basket. Nobody, at least in red, can hit a shot. Even the blue guys suffered.
A college basketball coach once famously said the reason his team lost was because, and I quote, "Ball didn't go in the hoop."
Well. On Friday night, here at the Sweet 16, ball didn't go in the hoop.
Not enough for the Utes, anyway, who shrank away for not a minute, but lost to Duke, 63-57, in an ugly mother of an offensive NCAA Tournament game.
Through so much emptiness, Utah and the Blue Devils battled hard, players for both teams knowing the consequences were as enormous as the venue. Win and the days ahead opened wide. Lose and the season was done in, done for and just done done.
Done done for the Utes.
Straight from jump, you had to wonder: Would anybody make a shot?
It was tough.
Nearly four minutes in, Duke led, 1-zip. The Utes started 0-for-8, and advanced that to 1-for-12. The Blue Devils weren't a whole lot better. At the 12:45 mark, Utah was up, 8-5, and Dallin Bachynski had six of those points. Brandon Taylor launched an airball, a number of them, Delon Wright a couple of rim-benders and … nobody could find a young Keith Van Horn in the building.
The Utes' best offensive tactic appeared to be chucking up a brick and allowing Bachynski and Jakob Poeltl to tip in a second chance.
Slowly, glacially, Duke gained stodgy momentum, building a 10-point lead, and hanging on all night, while Utah's perimeter shooters fired the ball as though it were filled with cement. They also struggled with fumble fingers.
The Utes hit 29 percent of their shots in the first half, and 35 percent for the game. They made 4 of 16 attempts from beyond the arc. As for taking care of the ball, Utah didn't, gagging up nine first-half turnovers and 15 overall.
Still, the Utes' combination of defense and rebounding kept them alive, much as it has for months. Utah crowded Duke's perimeter shooters and regularly brought help on Jahlil Okafor, who looked jumpy en route to just six points. The one Devil they couldn't contain was Justise Winslow, who grew up in Houston and played like he owned the place, hauling 10 boards and dusting 8 of 14 shots, 3 of 4 from deep, for 21 points.
"I felt comfortable out there," he said.
Winslow loosened the bolts on a suppressed game.
The Utes couldn't hang.
"It was just one of those games when we weren't clicking," said Wright, after his final college game.
"We know we beat a good team," Mike Krzyzewski said.
Both teams, with different frames of references, embraced the prospects here squeezed the living daylights out of them, actually but Duke had more from start to finish.
"We played with energy, we played hard … there's not much more to say," Poeltl said. "We just couldn't finish it off at the end."
For the Utes, this was a destination game. If they succeeded here, they would arrive at the Elite Eight with an ever-burgeoning billfold of house money. For Duke, it was more a matter of doing what Duke does, moving through the steps necessary to get back to the place where Krzyzewski lives.
He lives there, still.
Utah had a walk through the neighborhood.
It could walk away proud, but dissatisfied. The Utes didn't play their best here, but they had a surprising year, a season they will reflect fondly on in the weeks and years ahead.
"I'm in decompress mode at this point," Larry Krystkowiak said. "But … it's been a heck of a year."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.