SALT LAKE CITY – Coach Mark Few was the one who arrived in town just a few hours before his No. 16 Gonzaga Bulldogs played Utah on Wednesday night, having stayed back home with his pregnant and overdue wife almost until the last minute.
Yet his players were the ones looking distracted.
The Zags bumbled and stumbled their way through the opening minutes of each half, having to fight back from 11-point deficits both times only to ultimately lose 66-65 in the final seconds in front of 12,571 fans at the Huntsman Center.
It was the Bulldogs’ fourth loss in five games, following their 7-0 start.
“We’re just not catching any breaks right now,” Few said.
Certainly not at the end.
Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin intercepted an inbounds pass with 6 seconds left and the Zags trailing by one, setting the table for a potential last-second winner after burning the Utes for 26 points last season.
But the junior missed a short jumper. Teammate Austin Daye couldn’t get his tip-in attempt to fall, and Utah’s Luke Nevill grabbed the final rebound as time expired to avenge last year’s two-point loss at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We need to learn to finish out games better,” Bouldin said. “We’ve had all 1-minute games these last few losses and we just need to learn to finish them out a lot better.”
Three times in the final 61/2 minutes, the Zags pulled within one point.
But each time, Utah hit free throws to keep them from taking the lead. The Utes made 10 straight free throws in the final 5 minutes and ruined the return of Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti, who was head coach of the Utes for three seasons until being effectively fired nearly two years ago.
“He is a very, very, very good basketball coach,” Few said of Giacoletti. “I don’t know that that’s understood around here (in Utah). It needs to be. I don’t think it was easy for him (to come here), but he handled it like he handles everything, with incredible class. He only knows one way, and that is to work hard. He doesn’t really focus on the other peripheral things.”
The Zags had a tough time all night, making just 2 of 13 3-pointers – the Utes said they concentrated on defending the 3-point line – losing the rebounding battle again and getting a modest 14 points from top-scoring forwards Josh Heytvelt and Daye, on ugly 8-for-29 shooting.
The 7-foot-2 Nevill certainly played a role, blocking three shots and appearing to intimidate his shorter opponents.
Heytvelt and Daye seemed hesitant at times to take the ball to the basket.
“Tonight we were not making the tough, hard-earned ones,” Few said. “We were kind of moving the ball around and we were not banging them through some guys. We need to toughen up in there and step up and make some shots, especially Josh and Austin. They are taking a lot of them. They’re just not making them.”
Guards Jeremy Pargo and Steven Gray led the Zags (8-4) with 14 points apiece, while Heytvelt finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. But Gonzaga shot only 35 percent,
“The huge key was our defense,” Nevill said. “We kind of got in their heads a little bit, and they were hesitant and they weren’t playing their game, and that was because of our defense.”
Nevill led Utah with 15 points and eight rebounds, and the Utes (8-5) beat a ranked team for the first time since Giacoletti led them past Oklahoma in the second round of the 2005 NCAA tournament.
“That last 6 seconds, when I got the ball up there, at first I thought it was in,” Bouldin said. “And then, I thought we’d get a tip-in, for sure. We had a few chances inside there. It just didn’t fall.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.