Utah played a thoroughly imperfect game in its 77-75, overtime win over No. 7 Duke.
And yet, because the Utes were anything but flawless, their biggest victory of the 2015-’16 college basketball season gives head coach Larry Krystkowiak the ideal building block for the remainder of the season.
Utah dominated in the first half, but led only 33-30 at intermission. The Utes fell behind in the final minutes, rallied to force overtime, and nearly fouled their way to a loss.
For all the mistakes, missed opportunities and miscues, Utah still scored a win in what goes down as a neutral-court victory, but was truly a road contest. New York is a second home for the Blue Devils. Saturday was Duke’s third contest in NYC this season; last year, it played four in the area.
Traveling across the country and outplaying the seventh-ranked team should restore some of the stock pundits placed in the Utes this preseason. Utah was tabbed as a Top 20 team, but losses to Miami and Wichita State knocked Krystkowiak’s squad from the polls.
Saturday’s win will undoubtedly restore Utah’s Top 25 billing, and wrapping up the nonconference slate against Delaware State and College of Idaho should guarantee the Utes a national ranking when Pac-12 Conference competition begins Jan. 1 at Stanford.
Utah has plenty of kinks it can iron out before embarking on the conference slate, which opens with three straight road games. The latter two, Cal and Colorado, pit the Utes against possible NCAA Tournament teams.
The most glaring deficiency in Saturday’s win: the inability to close.
Utah pulled ahead by six in the final two minutes of overtime, but a parade to the free-throw line kept the Blue Devils in striking distance. Duke went to the stripe on four consecutive possessions in the final minute, the most damaging of which was Luke Kennard’s four-point play on a Lorenzo Bonam foul. Kennard turned a six-point deficit to just two, and Dakari Tucker’s drop of the subsequent inbound pass very nearly forced double-overtime.
The Utes would have played another extra frame sans center Jakob Poeltl, who fouled out in overtime.
Failure to close cost Utah a season ago, most notably in a late-season showdown with Arizona. The Utes coughed up a late, six-point lead in that one, which gave the Wildcats the inside track on the Pac-12 regular-season championship.
Further, Duke was in position to steal a win in part because Utah was unable to capitalize on a decisive, first-half advantage down low.
With no Amile Jefferson in the lineup, Poeltl dominated to the tune of 19 points and 14 rebounds. As a team, Utah owned the glass, out-rebounding the Blue Devils, 49-29. That advantage extended to the defensive end, as well, as Duke shot just 30 percent from the floor.
Utah certainly had opportunities to pull away. But that fact is a huge positive for the Utes.
Poeltl’s continued development into a true star center gives this team a huge cornerstone around which to build a champion. His presence in the key, and the harassing defense Utah’s guards played on 21-point per game scorer Grayson Allen, suggests this squad can grow into a defensive force come Pac-12 play.
Heading into Saturday, Utah ranked just 76th in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive metrics. Their standing is unlikely to improve dramatically after the Duke win, but it gives Krystkowiak a solid starting point.
Ugly or not, the win will also mean as much come March had Utah closed out to a 10-point win. This is a milestone victory in what could be a huge season still to come.