Maybe they could have withstood an onslaught from their opponents’ much larger big men, or maybe they could have survived multiple questionable calls from the game’s officiating crew in the contest’s final few minutes.
“There are going to be games where you have to play through that,” said point guard Kodi Justice after the loss. “But today, I felt like every tough call just didn’t go our way. Especially being at home, we (should) have gotten one or two here or there because we’re the home team.”
Big man Kyle Kuzma shined on this day, taking advantage of an undersized Arizona State (9-8, 2-2 Pac-12) defense to the tune of 26 points and 12 rebounds. It was guard Shannon Evans II who led the Sun Devils, scoring 21 points on a 9-of-16 shooting mark from field.
Eager to put Thursday’s 10-point loss against Arizona behind them, Utah (11-4, 2-1) came out sharp to quiet the large Wells Fargo Arena crowd early on. Helped by a pair of three-pointers, an easy dunk, and a host of missed shots by Arizona State, the visitors from Salt Lake City jumped out to an 11-2 advantage before four minutes had even come off the clock.
Slowly but surely, however, the Sun Devils began to find their legs and settle in. An 11-2 run tied the game up at 13-all, and a 10-1 binge just shortly thereafter gave the Maroon and Gold a 27-17 lead.
They were able to keep that advantage for the rest of the half, eventually taking a 37-34 lead into the locker room at the halftime break.
The start of the second half brought a quicker pace along with it, and while that would typically be fine with Bobby Hurley’s team, it was the Utes who benefited greatly.
An emphasis on getting out in transition opened the floor up for Utah, which lead to a host of open looks both near the basket and behind the three-point line. It was at this time when Kuzma decided to take over, making all eight of his team’s points in less than a two-minute stretch.
That spurt put the Utes ahead 59-51 with 10 minutes and change remaining, a hill that seemed like it would be too big for Arizona State to climb.
“Kuzma’s a really good, experienced player,” Hurley said. “He made a lot of shots - a lot of threes - out there.”
Despite the strength of Kuzma and company, the Sun Devils would claw their way back through a frantic full-court press and some missed free throws.
Down by seven with 90 seconds remaining, the Maroon and Gold went on a 7-2 run in less than a minute to pull within 82-80. They could have very well taken the lead, however, if not for a stolen possession by Utah in which it appeared Kuzma got away with an offensive foul near his own baseline.
The officials ruled that Kuzma was fouled before he knocked over guard Tra Holder, resulting in an-already incensed Hurley coming very, very close to picking up a technical.
“I’m just going to take a pass on that one,” said Hurley when asked about the multiple questionable whistles down the stretch. “There’s a lot I could say, but I’m going to move on and be a good boy.”
After missing a three-pointer that would have tied the game with 15 seconds remaining, it appeared that Hurley’s club would get another look at evening the score when the officials that a ball bouncing out of bounds was touched last by the defense.
Ultimately, that call would go against Arizona State as well as the officials reviewed the play and determined that Holder was the last one to touch the ball.
Utah’s JoJo Zamora made both of the ensuing free throws, and one more meaningless make from the charity stripe sent the team back to Salt Lake with a tight 88-82 victory.
For the Sun Devils, the home loss means the team is now back to .500 in Pac-12 play. Things won’t get any easier, either, as a trip to Tucson to face rival Arizona is up next.
“It’s premium to win home games because it is so hard to win on the road in conference play,” Hurley said. “Our whole mindset this weekend was to protect our home court, and we came up short of that.”