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Utah Utes mount a comeback on men’s basketball

Stanford falls to 2-5 in the Pac-12 as they lose a lead they held for most of the game in a nail-biting finish

Freshman guard Bryce Wills (above) got the start on Thursday with Cormac Ryan injured, contributing eight points, five rebounds and two assists. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

In a game that came down to the wire on Thursday night, the Stanford Cardinal men’s basketball team (9-10, 2-5 Pac-12) ultimately fell to the the Utah Utes (10-8, 4-2 Pac-12) in a 70-66 decision this Thursday at Maples Pavilion. Conference woes continue to plague the Cardinal as they have yet to win back-to-back Pac-12 games this season.

Despite the loss, sophomore forward KZ Okpala cooked up a 20-piece tonight, finishing with a total of 22 points on 7-15 shooting. Freshman point guard Daejon Davis also had an offensive explosion in the second half, going six for eight from the field to finish with 17 points and three steals. Senior center Josh Sharma was a presence down low, using his towering 7-foot-0 frame and his eagle-like wingspan to his advantage. The big man led the team with nine points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in the contest.

The first quarter can only be described as a pendulum as both teams contributed to the consistent back and forth movement across the court. Stanford’s pacing looked sharp tonight, moving the ball around a lot more on offense and pushing the tempo off of turnover opportunities.

Though Davis started off shaky, forcing up tough shots and starting off 0-6 from the floor, he made his presence felt when he flew over a Utes defender for an electrifying hammer in the opening court off of a steal. Utah, however, responded quickly with a triple and a layup, tying the game at 18.

Stanford was in command for most of the half, not trailing until there were four minutes remaining. Part of this was due to the Cardinal’s physicality on defense — the team recorded 10 blocks in the game, seven of which came in first half.

As soon as the Utes crossed the half-court line, Stanford put on massive defensive pressure, looking to trap the ball at every opportunity. For a while, their gambles paid off — Utah’s guards seemed flustered with the double teams and forced several bad passes, leading to many Stanford fast break opportunities, including the aforementioned Davis dunk. However, Stanford’s overextension left the paint wide open on more than one occasion.

Despite Stanford’s consistent pressure high above the three point line, the Utes were still hot from distance, going 5-7 from beyond the arch in the first half. Nothing is more defensively demoralizing than playing 25 seconds of lock down defense just to have a three hit in your face.

Utah finished the half hot, draining seven of their last nine field goals, and sent Stanford trailing into the half 26-31.

The Cardinal entered the second half with a renewed sense of the fiery Cardinal spirit and again, sent the pendulum swinging. The first play down was a beauty to witness–after a Davis steal, the ball passed through every Cardinal’s hands before Okpala faked out a defender in the corner and drove into the wide open paint to throw one down with authority.

Davis was a machine coming out of the break, hitting all of his first six shots from the field and going 2-2 from the free throw line.

The elevated intensity sparked a 16-5 run for the Cardinal, capped off by an Okpala and-one, building the Cardinal lead to 47-41. However, the Utes found their mojo, and clawed their way back with scrappy offensive runs.

Tension built in Maples as the game drew to a close. The atmosphere at Maples swirled with excitement and nervousness after Barefield hit a go-ahead three for the Utes with two and a half minutes remaining, mirroring that of a climate change Ted Talk: The fans all knew the end was coming, but still held onto the smallest semblance of hope that the boys would deliver.

The crowd erupted after Okpala hit a clutch three to tie the game back up at 63 with a little over a minute remaining. However, the Utes silenced them quickly with a bucket and a pair of free throws.

In an intense last minute that stretched out to millennia as fans sat on the edge of their seats, Sharma put in big free throws with 25 seconds remaining to bring the Cardinal back within 1. These hopes were drowned when Barefield answered back with two dagger free throws, extending the Utes’ lead to 66-69. Johnson added another from the line at end of the game for a nice cherry on top, serving the Cardinal a heartbreaking 66-70 defeat.

“There is a really, really small margin of error when playing a team like this.” Davis commented when asked about the team’s mentality down the stretch, “Just those two three point shots Van Dyke made at the end of the half, and obviously those three point shots at the end by Barefield … those hurt us.”

Looking ahead, the Cardinal will finish off their home stay against the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday at 5 p.m. PST, before taking a journey across the Bay Bridge to face off against Cal the following weekend.

 

Contact Stephen Ren at rensteph ‘at’ stanford.edu and Asia Zhang at asiaz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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