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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah could never really pull away.
Washington tied up the game 57-57 with just over seven minutes left to play after the Utes built up a 14-point lead and appeared ready to send the visiting Huskies away with a loss. But an 18-5 run over a six-minute stretch by Washington proved too much for the Utes.
And it only got worse.
Washington's Cole Bajema, who averages 15% from behind the arc this season, hit a corner 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 3-point lead, and Emmitt Matthews Jr. followed it up with a triple of his own off a Utah turnover to control a 6-point lead with 4:30 left to play.
It was a 20-point swing and there was nothing Utah could do to stop the bleeding. All Utah head coach Craig Smith could do was call a timeout in hopes to reset the deluge.
But to rub salt in the already exposed wound, Matthews hit a corner 3-pointer out of the timeout to give the Huskies a 9-point lead. To make matters worse, the bucket came after another Utah turnover — the 19th Utes turnover of the night.
Utah eventually cut the lead back down to 3 points but couldn't overcome the momentum swing as Washington left the Huntsman Center with a 74-68 win, its first of conference play this season.
Washington (6-6, 1-1 Pac-12) had four players score in double figures and were led by Daejon Davis' 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. Bajema and Terrell Brown Jr. each added 15 points apiece, and Jamal Bey added 14 points in the win.
"I just thought we got really tentative and not in attack mode and lost our aggression," Smith said. It was a "potpourri" of miscues down the stretch that led to Utah's downfall. Utah led in many statistical categories — the Utes outrebounded the Huskies 44-26, for example — but had 19 turnovers in a game that translated to 22 points on the other end for Washington.
The turnover microcosm of the game came as the Utes ended the first half.
Utah (8-7, 1-4 Pac-12) attempted to play for the last shot with the game clock matching the shot clock, but a careless pass at midcourt was picked off and Washington hit a 3-pointer as time expired to cut Utah's lead to 37-33 at the halftime break. It was a chance to go up double digits (or at least close to it), but it was wasted with a careless pass.
The end-of-half play was a fitting end to a first half where Utah committed 11 turnovers and allowed as many points on the other end for the visiting Huskies. The message in the locker room was to stop the turnovers, but Utah started the second half with two quick turnovers.
The problem hadn't been solved.
"We might have to go to some drastic length because obviously the last three games it's been a major issue," a frustrated Smith said about his team not fixing the turnover problem.
The season started with relatively low turnovers, but Utah has caught the bug — not COVID — and has been prone to a multitude of turnovers in the last couple weeks. In the last three games, Utah has combined for 53 turnovers, or 17.6 per game.
Even Washington's love affair with a zone defense that traditionally forces teams to turn over the ball wasn't to blame for Utah's inexplicable propensity to turn the ball over.
Marco Anthony said the recent turnover bug is hard to explain.
"I honestly could not tell you," Anthony said. "It's kind of like how we had the injury bug at the start of the season, now we have the turnover bug. It's just something that we've got to overcome."
Lezar Stefanovic, who has taken on an increased role as of late and had a team-high 12 points, said there needs to be more "focus" on the team — a team engaged the full 40 minutes of play. "We've got to find a way, and it has to happen sooner than later."
For the first time since the BYU game on Nov. 27, Utah had a fully healthy roster (outside of a season-ending injury to Bostyn Holt) and got Dusan Mahorcic back for seven minutes Thursday night. The backup center who brings physicality to the post, wore a padded brace on his right knee, but wasn't limited by an injury that was feared to be season ending at the time.
Mahorcic gave Utah another big body in the post to combat Washington but finished with 2 points in his limited play.