Huge Win For Utah in a Non-Conference Classic

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 4th, 2014

If you’ve been paying attention here, you knew the stats: last year Utah was 3-8 in games decided by two possessions or less. This season they extended that number to 3-9 with a four-point loss at San Diego State. Throw in the extra little point that only one of those three close wins last year came against an NCAA Tournament team, and you had to feel unsure about the Utes’ chances in the middle of the second half when they appeared to be locked into a duel with everybody’s favorite, the Wichita State Shockers. Even as the Utes appeared to be the more dynamic team on the floor in this game once they settled down about mid-way through the first half, the Shockers kept sticking around and making championship-level plays. That is, right up until their water got turned off by excellent Utah defense for possession after possession in the middle of the second half. A consistently tight game turned into an 11-point lead for the Utes with five minutes left, a lead that remained at seven with 80 seconds left. And it appeared the game was in hand. And then: oh Utah. Wichita: three. Then a five-second call and a unshocking three. Then a turnover on the inbounds pass and then another Wichita three. And then… “Sure, okay, this is how 3-10 is going to happen.”

Freshman Seven-Footer Jakob Poeltl Helped Lead The Utes To An Exciting Win (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Freshman Seven-Footer Jakob Poeltl Helped Lead The Utes To An Exciting Win (Rick Bowmer, AP)

But then, this team with all this talent… They… Well, is “grew a pair” too much? This matchup was a game with actual consequences for both teams. Wichita is getting exactly two cracks at the Big Five conference teams this season, and this was one of them. Utah, while still having chances at quality wins later in December, was on the verge of adding on another layer of lacquer to that reputation of a team that can’t win in the clutch. Both of these teams had very strong reasons to take this game extremely seriously. And in the middle of all this, Utah takes Wichita’s best shot (albeit in the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center) and shows a serious toughness down the stretch of regulation to force overtime and eventually eke out a tough win.

Intermission One

Dakarai Tucker is a 20-year-old junior for the Utes. Last year he averaged 20 minutes per game, just under seven points a game and was more or less just a three-point shooter on the offensive end (he shot twice as many shots from behind the three-point line as he did from within it) and a solid defender on the other end of the court. He sat out the first four games of the season with a back injury, then earned a combined 22-minutes in blowouts of North Dakota and Alabama State.

And then Tucker showed up tonight and played a crucial role in helping the Utes win this game. Aside from repeatedly terrific defense on guys like Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton throughout this game, after having again this season established himself as a shooter, he broke character and, with the Utes down two with 20 seconds left, took elite defender Cotton off the dribble, got to the hoop and drew and foul and two shots. And then, under immense pressure, drilled them both to tie up the game. Then, in overtime, with the thought still hanging in the air that the Utes had choked to even be taken to overtime; with the Utes having gone empty on their first two possessions;  and with the Utes having given every indication of being tight, Tucker got the ball on a nice drive-and-dish from Brandon Taylor in the corner, shot faked a three on Cotton, got him in the popcorn machine, then stepped into a 17-foot jumper with utmost confidence and knocked it down. Dakarai Tucker! Against Tekele Cotton, certainly on the short-list for best perimeter defenders in the nation! And really, from there, while the Utes still had dragons to slay on a possession-by-possession basis, they were no longer going to be slayed by self-doubt.

Intermission Two

Jakob Poeltl may be the breakout player around the nation this year, certainly in terms of NBA Draft potential. This is a guy who, although there was plenty of buzz about, was off the radar as far as the draft was concerned prior to the season. After tonight if not earlier, he’s at least in the 2015 lottery picture. There are certainly some rough edges around his game: he needs to improve his free throws, needs to add assertiveness and aggressiveness in the post and, frankly, just needs to keep playing ball games and get used to high-level competition. But good lord, the potential is so obvious. All those good words that you can break out as positive buzz words about collegiate big men apply: power, athleticism, explosion, energy, size, motor, feel, quickness, touch, IQ, hops, awareness. The list goes on. We still get to see Poeltl against freshmen like Kansas’ Cliff Alexander and UNLV’s shotblocking Goodluck Okonoboh in this non-conference schedule. He’ll definitely be work a look.

The final minute of overtime in this game was as good as regular season college basketball gets. With about a minute left, Poeltl gets called for one of those infuriating college basketball fouls (a blocking foul as the Ute big was mostly just playing vertical and guarding a slashing opponent); Evan Wessel makes two clutch free throws and Wichita is up one. Utah responds when Brandon Taylor beats Baker off the dribble and splits Wessel and Shaquille Morris for a layup.

Intermission Three

Dude. Brandon Taylor. Brandon Freaking Not-A-Chance-He’s-Actually-5’10”, They-Don’t-Call-Him-“Tiny”-Ironically Taylor. He knocked in three threes tonight. Four assists in playing a regularly interchangeable point position with Delon Wright. And three driving forays into the lane amidst the Wichita bigs, for a total of a game-high 17 points on the night. And if that isn’t enough, the junior was regularly vocal with his younger teammates (notably wing Kyle Kuzma and unpolished freshman athlete Brekkot Chapman) when they failed to live up to their responsibilities. Wright and Poeltl are this team’s stars (sorry Jordan Loveridge – your Robin role has been usurped), but Taylor will be every bit as important to the Utes’ eventual long-term success as anyone.

With just under 50 seconds remaining and the Utes up a point, Shocker point guard and All-American candidate Fred Van Vleet ran a little screen/roll at the top of the key, earned a switch to get sophomore Chris Reyes on him, and then took advantage of the mismatch to drive on the bigger Reyes, in the process, drawing Poeltl over to do his job well and protect the rim. But, as Van Vleet got to the middle of the lane, he dropped a beautiful dime to Poeltl’s man, Morris, all alone on the lower block and ready to attack the rim for a dunk. But Poeltl, after landing from his jump that challenged Van Vleet’s drive, spent approximately 1/10th of a second on the ground and easily slipped into his second jump to successfully challenge and reject Morris’ shot at the rim. Absolutely phenomenal play out of Poeltl. There were at least ten “Wow” plays out of Poeltl tonight, but this one was the most important and maybe the most impressive. Not only did he make the right play in sliding over to help out his teammate beaten on a mismatch, but he had just the raw athletic ability and werewithal to slide from that play to a last-ditch attempt to challenge a shot at the rim. I’d bet there aren’t five players in college basketball that could have made that play.

But Poelt wasn’t done yet. Fast-forward through All-American caliber offensive plays by Ron Baker and Delon Wright. Utes still up one, now with 4.3 seconds left. Van Vleet is at the line, misses the front-end of a one-and-one. And, gasp! Poeltl completely whiffs on blocking his man out on the defensive rebound, Wessel grabs the board and luckily for the Ute blows a good look at a put-back to take the lead. Poeltl’s frontcourt teammate Reyes, however, bails Poeltl out by pulling down an aggressive rebound after Wessel’s miss and earning the foul. What follows next is pure gold. Reyes goes to the line for his own pressure-packed one-and-one, misses the front-end, and… Who is there to pull down a wild, strong rebound to help make up for a teammates’ mistake? Poeltl, who after grabbing the rebound, immediately turns to find Reyes and then goes up to him and get a chest-bump, signifying for all the world that Poeltl had Reyes’ back, returning the favor for Reyes having had his just moments earlier.

Look, there is still work to do on this Ute roster. It would be nice to see Wright put away the three-point shot until the NBA Combine. It would be nice to see Jordan Loveridge (who did not play tonight – for better or for worse could honestly be up for debate – due to a knee injury; he’s out a month) show a killer instinct and an appetite for play inside of the three-point line. It would be nice to see the Utes get the ball to Poeltl in the paint. And certainly freshman like Chapman and Kuzma have room for intellectual growth. But there is an absolute ton to be excited about on this Ute roster. And here’s the funny thing: last week I voted Wichita State 11th in the nation in our RTC poll. Even after tonight’s loss, I doubt I’ll be dropping them any, and they may even move up a spot or two. Last week I voted Utah 19th. And even after beating the #11 team in my own mind and getting a close-game monkey off of their backs, I’m not sure I’m ready to move them up much higher. But man, I can’t wait to see both of these teams come March.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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