This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Well, now. That was about as much fun as watching a shark devour chum, wasn't it?
With a smooth swim through open water toward the Elite Eight in front of the Utes, practically begging them to backstroke their way straight to the winner of 15-seed Middle Tennessee and 10-seed Syracuse in the next round, the Sweet 16, compliments of now-eliminated Sparty, they simply would not take the good gifts the basketball gods had given them.
They could not stay afloat or alive.
Instead, third-seeded Utah fell behind early in its second-round game against 11th-seeded Gonzaga, and fell further behind late, the final count at Pepsi Center being 82-59, and it was nowhere near that close.
"That was as good as we've played all year," Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. "On the biggest stage."
It might have been as bad as Utah has played.
The second half turned into an exhibition of either Gonzaga brilliance, if you want to give praise, or Utah ineptitude, if you want to throw blame.
The much-anticipated battle of the big men between Utah's Jakob Poeltl and Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis was as lopsided as a Kim Kardashian double gainer. To say Poeltl struggled against Arvydas' boy is underselling it. Poeltl scored five points in the first half and none in the second.
Beforehand, when Larry Krystkowiak was asked about that matchup, he blew the lid off honesty, saying: "I'm real curious. I'm as curious as you are."
The result brought him no satisfaction.
While emphasizing he wanted to make no excuses, Krystkowiak said: "I know Jakob tweaked his ankle pretty good. You know, Sabonis got the best of Jakob in the situation. … That particular matchup, he outplayed us."
When Poeltl found himself with two fouls, and was summoned to the bench down the stretch in the first half, the Bulldogs had their way with the Utes. Even before that, the whole thing tilted toward Gonzaga, what with Utah establishing little consistent inside presence, other than an occasional drive. Over those first 20 minutes, Sabonis had 11 points, eight rebounds. Poeltl had his five, two boards, and two turnovers. Sabonis finished with 19 points, 10 boards and three assists. Poeltl: five, four and two.
Making matters worse, as the game wore on, the Utes couldn't hit enough from the outside. And nobody on Utah's bench, including Krystkowiak, could figure out any other place from which to score. They were 8-for-8 from the line. Meanwhile, Gonzaga made 56 percent of its shots.
Rebounding? The difference there was 34-24, Bulldogs.
The turnover troubles that plagued the Utes over the last two games a total of 40 vexed them, again, from the start. Gonzaga had 15 points off nine turnovers in the first half. It didn't matter that the Zags weren't playing scramble-crazy ball, the way Oregon last week and Fresno State on Thursday did. They were simply beating the Utes to their spots and playing aggressive defense.
Brandon Taylor's pronouncement that his team needed to "be tight with the ball" went unheeded.
"We had some mental errors," Krystkowiak said. "Disappointing," is the way he described what he felt during and after the game.
He added: "The better team won tonight."
The lead was 44-29 at the half, grew to 53-31 four minutes into the second, and, from there … don't ask.
What it all meant for Krystkowiak, his program, and his team, a group that had such high hopes after strong stretches through the Pac-12 and a run to the conference championship game, was a complicated thing to ascertain. Certainly, Krystkowiak's presence at the head of Utah basketball has been a big bonus, a flat success. After a trip to the Sweet 16 last year and to the round of 32 this time, he's taken the Utes from the brink of mockery to the edge of complete respect.
But falling hard here was a cup filled with bitterness for the Utes. They fell behind by 30 points against the Bulldogs, as they had a week earlier against the Ducks, and looked hapless doing it.
Now, their biggest weapon, Poeltl, will likely leave for the NBA, their point guard, Brandon Taylor, will move on, as will senior Jordan Loveridge. Where they go from here, only the future knows.
"Our kids are going to bounce back," Krystkowiak said. "We'll get over it, grow through it, and … we'll be OK."
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.