By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY – Utah guard Delon Wright dribbled all by himself, a byproduct of Washington’s unintentional charity, finishing his rimward excursion with an easy, two-handed dunk that had everybody in the Huntsman Center standing.
That dunk didn’t end the game, but it might as well have. It did provide an 11-point Utes lead, built during a 5-plus minute stretch during which the Huskies did not score, and proved insurmountable as UW dropped a 78-69 decision here on Thursday night.
And so Washington’s road woes continue, the Huskies losing their fifth consecutive game away from home, this one to a team they already defeated this season.
But before a healthy crowd of 12,226, the Utes were simply the better team, shooting 60 percent from the field — and 68 percent in the second half — to avenge a 59-57 loss at UW on Jan. 8.
“We’ve got to guard better,” said junior forward Desmond Simmons. “That’s just flat-out.”
Defense, coach Lorenzo Romar conceded, is a problem. A big problem. One the Huskies (13-10, 5-5 in Pac-12) must amend before Sunday’s trip to Colorado if they are to retain hope of a run at the postseason. Such thoughts are fleeting now.
“We thought we had the defensive thing squared away,” Romar said. “… We’ve taken a couple steps backward in that regard. Like we were saying when we were in that predicament before, we’re going to have to fix it. And we’ve got to fix it. That has been a pattern, so we have to fix it.”
It wasn’t as glaring in the first half, though the Utes still shot 50 percent in that period. But Utah (15-7, 4-6) also committed 10 turnovers before halftime, the biggest reason why its lead at intermission was only 31-30.
It was an even battle for the first nine minutes of the second half, the teams exchanging baskets at a quick pace before Nigel Williams-Goss’ bucket with 11:22 to play gave UW a 51-49 lead.
For Huskies fans, the rest of the game was not worth watching. Utah reeled off 13 points without a UW score — the Huskies committed a handful of their 13 turnovers during this stretch — with Wright’s dunk capping that onslaught to give his team a 62-51 lead with 5:53 to play.
Williams-Goss led a mini-charge toward a comeback, netting a 3-pointer, an and-one basket and an assist to Simmons — he made his first start of the season and tied a career-high with 14 points — to cut Utah’s lead to 67-63 with 1:57 to go.
But on Utah’s next possession, guard Brandon Taylor, who scored 20 points, connected on a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Utes in ultimate command.
That open look was simply a culmination of a night marked by them. Wright scored 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Jordan Loveridge added 16 points and 13 rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting. And Utah shot 31 free throws to just nine for UW, the result of mismatches and slow defensive adjustments by the Huskies.
“There were times when we should have switched and we didn’t switch,” said UW guard C.J. Wilcox, who led his team with 20 points, playing his final game near the suburb of Pleasant Grove where he grew up. “Or we were late switching and (they) caught us in bad position and we either fouled or they got a good shot.”
Simmons’ offensive output was a bright spot. And Williams-Goss, who missed practice time this week with a hip injury, scored 19 points in 35 minutes. But that drought in the second half was killer, especially considering how easy Utah had it on the offensive end.
The Huskies also got very little out of sophomore guard Andrew Andrews — he also missed practice the last two days with an ankle problem — who made just one shot in 12 attempts.
If they’d gotten a few stops, an off-night offensively could have been mitigated.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Simmons said. “We’ve lost two in a row. We don’t take it lightly at all. There’s definitely a sense of urgency as far as going into the next game.”