Utah struggles to claw its way out of a very flat start, falls to No. 7-ranked Oregon

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes head coach Lynne Roberts rolls her eyes as she turns away from the court. Oregon defeated Utah 84-68, Sunday, January 28, 2018.

Lynne Roberts stood in front of her bench, arms folded, knowing exactly where the smallest of breakdowns allowed one of the best teams in college basketball to re-center itself. When a defensive rotation wasn’t quick enough, and an Oregon Duck let loose a wide-open 3-pointer that splashed through the net, Utah’s coach remained stoic for a few seconds.

If you want a shot at toppling a powerhouse program, getting out of your own way is priority No. 1.

The Utes, through early self-inflicted mistakes and untimely defensive lapses, were nearly run out of their own gym Sunday afternoon at the Huntsman Center. Utah’s second unit bailed out the starters, who struggled to find their footing in the first half, but whenever the Utes came close to pulling even with No. 7 Oregon, those little mishaps stacked up.

Utah (14-7, 5-5) fell to the best team in the Pac-12 84-68 Sunday at home, proving once again that in this conference, staying close, sticking within striking range, only goes so far. Led by Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu — who finished with her ninth career triple-double — the well-balanced Ducks were too much for the hot-and-cold Utes.

Utah fell behind 23-4 in the first quarter, hitting its first field goal with less than five minutes left in the opening frame.

“I thought we came out about as flat as you can come out, which is embarrassing, and that’s on me,” Roberts said. “I’ve got to do a better job of … I don’t know. Getting them ready to play or … I don’t know. That’s unacceptable. You’re playing the seventh-ranked team in the country, and to come out flat, I don’t get it.”

The Utes, paced by Tilar Clark (12 points off the bench), Tanaeya BoClair (13 points and eight rebounds off the bench) and starter Erika Bean, eventually stabilized things for a while. Utah clawed back on a 17-2 run into the second quarter, trimming the Ducks’ lead down to just three. The defense clamped down, forcing turnovers.

The offense was no longer stagnating. Utah nearly snatched complete control of the game’s momentum.

Ionescu drained two 3-pointers right in front of Roberts and the Utah bench, putting more distance between the Ducks and Utes. As Oregon stumbled out of its own second-quarter slump, Utah’s offense slowly froze. The Utes went the last six minutes and five seconds of the first half without a single field goal.

“Win or lose, we should learn something from every game that we play,” BoClair said, “whether that means we can hang with these guys, or whether it means people still think of us as the underdog.”

Oregon never allowed Utah back into the game in the second half, refusing to give the Utes a glimmer of hope. One of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country hit 10 of 15 attempts from distance. Roberts understands that’s what the top teams around do. Utah might be on the climb in the Pac-12, but now halfway through conference play, the Utes still must figure out a way to inch closer to the league’s elite.

“The highs are so high and the lows are so low and you get tastes of those, but if you dive in that pool, it’s hard to [get out],” Roberts said. “The crash is that much harder. We just have to stay the course. We’re 5-5. If we go .500 in this league, we have a good chance of making the NCAA Tournament. And that is still in front of us.”

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