Utes’ season ends in first round of NIT

It was fitting finale for the Utes as they added the final chapter to their Groundhog Day season Tuesday night with a 70-58 loss to Saint Mary’s in the first round of the NIT in Moraga, Calif.

All season long Utah has struggled to close out games on the road, failing to finish off opponents when it had them down. It was no different agains the Gaels, as Saint Mary’s was able to take advantage of Ute turnovers and sloppy play to overcome a double-digit second half deficit and advance to the second round of the NIT against Minnesota.

“I wasn’t expecting to give an end-of-a season speech,” head coach Larry Krystkowiak said on the ESPN 700 postgame show.

It didn’t look like he’d need to after the opening minutes saw the Utes go on a number of runs to break the game open. Utah began the contest on an 11-0 run and was able to maintain a comfortable margin for the majority of the opening session. The Utes came out with energy and it briefly appeared as if they were going to use their athleticism to overwhelm a seemingly uninterested Saint Mary’s team.

Utah’s own mistakes played a major role in keeping the Gaels in the game early, though, and the Utes finished with 11 turnovers in the first half as Saint Mary’s closed the lead to seven at the break.

The opening portion of the second half was downright ugly. Both teams shot air balls, passed the ball out of bounds and committed unforced turnovers as coaches looked on in near disbelief at their apparently apathetic teams. For a moment the early Ute lead seemed like it was going to hold, but then the Gaels started making shots.

With Utah up 44-35 and seemingly in control, Saint Mary’s got a spark from a surprise source. Gael star Stephen Holt was struggling with foul trouble, and Matt Hodgson stepped up to provide a big lift in the post and spearhead a Saint Mary’s run that lasted until the end of the game. Hodgson finished with just eight points, but gave his team some life, and once they were engaged his teammates took it from there.

James Walker III led the Gaels with 21 points, 15 of them coming in the final 18 minutes of the game as Saint Mary’s made its comeback. Kerry Carter finished the Utes off with two big 3-pointers in the last five minutes as the Gaels ended the contest on 35-14 run to end Utah’s season.

“I am ready for some decompression,” Krystkowiak said. “This is when I start eating and sleeping again.”

Delon Wright nearly had a triple-double for the Utes once again, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, though he connected on just three of his nine shots from the field as Saint Mary’s continually collapsed on him. Jordan Loveridge led Utah in scoring with 17 points.

“The one thing is, the character of our guys is pretty solid and I have a lot of pride about that,” Krystkowiak said. “I hope our guys are as committed to getting better as the coaching staff is. The sun’s going to come up tomorrow and we are going to take some steps and improve.”

The sun will come up tomorrow, but on Tuesday night it set on the 2013-14 Runnin’ Utes.