Any other year, Saturday would have been Senior Night at the Huntsman Center.
But with one of Utah’s seniors on the bench with an injury, aiming to return in the fall, and the other kicked off the team more than a month ago, the Utes were without celebration in the buildup to their game against Stanford, the final home contest of the season.
The party came once the game was over.
In the end, it was indeed Utah veterans Jason Washburn and Chris Hines, albeit juniors, who led the Utes (6-22, 3-13 Pac-12) to their most uplifting win of the season, a 58-57 squeaker over Stanford (19-10, 9-8) that snapped an eight-game losing streak and, at least temporarily, blurred the memory of a whole lot of frustration.
For the final box score, click here: http://bit.ly/zpoMc6
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak implored his team to put an exclamation point on the home season. It was at the Huntsman Center that the Utes had earned their only five victories.
After they overcame a 10-point first-half deficit to lead at halftime and traded baskets with the Cardinal throughout the second half, the Utes went ahead for good on a Hines 3-pointer with 27.3 seconds remaining.
“I don’t think there’s a much bigger exclamation point than that,” Washburn said.
While Hines carried the Utes with 19 points and five 3-pointers, Washburn had perhaps the best game of his Utah career. The Michigan native — who, along with Hines, is one of the two returning players from last year’s team — scored 17 points, blocked six shots, had three steals and committed just one turnover.
“I’m proud of him,” Krystkowiak said. “He was really a force for us inside. I thought they switched a lot of pick-and-roll ... and our guys were able to get it inside with the smaller matchup.”
Utah fell behind 21-11 in the first half but went on a 19-6 run, which included Washburn’s first career 3-pointer, and led 34-33 at halftime.
After the break, Stanford did not score until the 14:33 mark of the second half, but by then Utah had managed to open only a five-point lead.
But where the Utes might have wilted earlier in the season and, in fact, did in many of their 23 losses, they held tough.
When Chasson Randle hit one of his five 3-pointers to put Stanford up 41-40 with 10:12 remaining, Utah’s Dijon Farr answered with a 3-pointer 20 seconds later to put Utah up 43-41.
When Randle did it again, this time for a 51-49 lead with 3:19 left, Hines answered with his fourth 3-pointer for a 52-51 lead.
“Earlier in the year, a team would hit a 3 or two 3s and you’d see we were pretty deflated,” Krystkowiak said, “and we didn’t realize it wasn’t over yet and that you could keep battling back.”
The Utes could and did.
Stanford claimed a 56-55 lead with 41 seconds remaining when forward Dwight Powell tipped in a missed 3-pointer by guard Aaron Bright. The Utes called a timeout and after the inbounds, guard Cedric Martin dribbled to the right side of the court.
Hines stayed left and waited.
“The whole flow was going to the right side,” Hines said, “and I saw Ced coming to the left side, and my man sucked in just a tad bit and I got a little bit of room and got a nice look.”
Twenty seconds later, after Randle drove the length of the court and missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Utes exulted.
It was just one win, but in a season with few, it felt like some kind of championship, even if all it did was strengthen the Utes’ hold on 11th place going into the Pac-12 Tournament, where the Utes suddenly look like they could be a threat.
“I wouldn’t want to play us right now if we finish 11th or whatever the case may be,” Krystkowiak said. “I wouldn’t want to be the sixth-place team that faces us first.”
That team, by the way, could be Stanford.
Utah 58, Stanford 57
R After shooting just 21 free throws in their last three games, the Utes go 17 for 21 from the line against Stanford.
• The Utes avoid a season-worst nine-game losing streak. They previously snapped an eight-game losing streak on Dec. 16 with a win over Idaho State.
• With USC’s 56-52 loss to Arizona State, the Utes moved two full games ahead of the Trojans and appear likely to avoid finishing last in the Pac-12.