Saturday night’s postgame news conference after the Runnin’ Utes had lost 70-60 to Oregon was wrapping up when Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic, unprompted, said he had one last thing to say before everyone left the little room across the hall from Utah’s locker room at the Huntsman Center.
“I just want to thank the fans for showing up,” Stefanovic said. “They were here in a huge number, and we really appreciate it. Hopefully they will come back in two weeks again.”
Added fellow news conference participant Marco Anthony: “Yeah, it was big time. Go Utes.”
“Of course, last year it just became a theme, us losing, and this year it kinda stings a little bit more because of the track we are on, the track we are headed. Especially losing a game like this where we didn’t play the way we are capable of, yeah, it does hurt a little bit more.” — Utah senior Marco Anthony
For the first time in recent memory, the Huntsman Center was rocking for a Runnin’ Utes basketball game Saturday night. Utah (12-5, 5-1) used that energy and spark to mount a nice comeback in the second half, but the Ducks made the bigger plays down the stretch and handed the home team its first Pac-12 loss of the season.
Announced attendance was 8,235, a season-high, and for the first time since last year against BYU (11,443) that number didn’t seem to be significantly exaggerated. For one Saturday night in early January, it felt like the 1990s and early 2000s again, when every opponent was greeted with noise, derision and more noise, and not just the hated Cougars.
It was a legitimate, engaged, raucous partisan crowd for the Runnin’ Utes, and Stefanovic, Anthony and head coach Craig Smith went out of their way to make sure the fans knew it was appreciated.
And that is one of the reasons why the loss was so “super disappointing,” in Smith’s words. The Utes lost an opportunity to win more fans, and take more steps toward getting the athletics administration to pull up the curtains that block off the upper bowl.
Winning big games like these — especially when football season is over — goes a long ways to recapturing hearts and minds, and on this night the Utes failed to deliver.
“I do want to thank our fans who came out tonight. That is partially why (it hurts so much). I mean, it sucks losing. But we finally, I mean, we had a good crowd tonight and I thought they had a great spirit to them and were trying to will us when we were kinda stuck in the mud there for a stretch.”
Oregon (9-7, 3-2) led by as many as 14 points in the first half and 12 points with 3:41 left, but Utah kept coming. A turnover with 1:41 left, Utah’s 14th, and the failure to box out when Oregon missed a free throw with 1:14 left, proved too much to overcome to a team that is ultra-talented but was coming off a 27-point loss at Colorado.
“It is a great group. It is a group with great character,” Smith said, sounding as if he was asking for fans to give his crew another chance in two weeks when the Washington schools visit Jan. 19 and 21. “They will work hard, but we gotta be better than we were tonight, and certainly we have played a lot better basketball throughout the year than we did tonight. But credit to Oregon. They made it difficult for us.”
The setback after Utah had improved to 5-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time ever with Thursday’s 79-60 rout of Oregon State was also costly because it dropped the Utes’ NET ranking from No. 30 to No. 43 and may have knocked them off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected them as a No. 10 seed for the Big Dance prior to the upset loss as 4.5-point favorites. Oregon is now 22-2 in Pac-12 games against the Utes, but this was a game Utah had to have — just like that missed free throw eventually corralled by Oregon point guard Will Richardson.
“I feel like the last minute free throw box-out thing where they got the ball back, I think that just summed up the whole night, honestly,” Anthony said. “Of course, we are going to learn from it. But we can’t let it keep us going (backwards), because we do have a big road trip coming up, going to the (southern) California schools.”
Which brings us to this Thursday. Prior to Saturday’s fifth overall loss of the season, Utah’s game at No. 10 UCLA in Los Angeles (9 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) was shaping up to be a huge showdown of teams atop the Pac-12 standings. UCLA (14-2, 5-0) edged USC 60-58 Thursday and was idle Saturday.
The Bruins have won 11 straight games since back-to-back November losses in Las Vegas to Illinois and Baylor and are suddenly the team to beat in the Pac-12, after No. 5 Arizona lost at home to lowly Washington State on Saturday.
Anthony, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds against Oregon, said the Utes will go back to the drawing board Monday, learn from their mistakes, and not put themselves into a similar position moving forward.
“Of course, last year it just became a theme, us losing, and this year it kinda stings a little bit more because of the track we are on, the track we are headed,” he said. “Especially losing a game like this where we didn’t play the way we are capable of, yeah, it does hurt a little bit more.”
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Utah (12-5, 5-1) at No. 10 UCLA (14-2, 5-0)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, California
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700