Monson: Utes beat UCLA ... uh, almost
There were all kinds of reasons to catch the action at the Huntsman Center on Thursday night, and a few of them actually had to do with Utah's basketball team. The rest centered on the guys from UCLA. In a game that was a matchup of a team trying to live up to impossible past standards versus a team trying to gain back its self-respect, the Bruins were first on the marquee, even here.
It's not every night that John Wooden's shadow is cast over your home floor, and the Utes had that privilege in their third Pac-12 game of the season and their first as a member of the conference playing host to ... yeah, You-Know-Who.
Funny thing about that is this: Wooden, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 99, hadn't had much effect on Bruins basketball for decades, since he retired in 1975. At the age of 93, he did say he wouldn't mind helping out as an assistant, but that never happened. And it wasn't until UCLA quit presuming too much about itself, playing on his legacy's fumes, before it started getting within shouting distance of the ridiculous feats the Wizard's teams accomplished.
Within shouting distance isn't a half-bad place to be, as long as it includes a national championship mixed in now and again.
This was not Wooden's team on Thursday night. It was Ben Howland's. The Bruins are a strong group, cloaked as it continues to be in the UCLA mystique. But not so strong that the hungry up-and-comers from Utah couldn't scare the bejeebers out of them.
As has become the norm for the Utes, they scrapped and battled against a more talented foe, falling behind periodically by more than 10 points. Still, Utah had a chance to win at the end. Instead, in the closing seconds, the Utes missed five chances to tie or take the lead after they closed to within two points. And each time they pooched.
Final numbers on the board: UCLA 57, Utah 53.
In the sad aftermath, Larry Krystkowiak said he told his players, "Those shots will go."
While we're young?
Krystkowiak said he's absolutely sure. He attributed the bricks at the end, in this game and the previous two, to "hoop demons."
"We'll make them at some point," he said, adding that the Utes "aren't that far away."
The game within the game was watching Utah's defense, statistically one of the best in the league, try to burn up the brake pads against UCLA's blistering offense, which averaged 80 points a game coming in. Not only do the Bruins proficiently dust the net, they do it efficiently, shooting 48 percent.
Against the Utes, UCLA shot just 40 percent and totaled nearly 23 points below its average. Utah successfully uglied up the game, just like it wanted to. The problem was, the Utes shot only 39 percent, including the critical misses at the end. They washed out a 13-point Bruin lead, slicing it to 55-53 in the last minutes.
After that, nothing.
In a comprehensive sense, it was another opportunity for Utah to measure itself, its progress, against a quality program. After coming close in road games at Arizona State and Arizona, losing by a combined four points, it happened again here.
While UCLA is trying to re-establish itself against that impossible past standard, the Utes, themselves part of a proud basketball tradition, are re-emerging from a state of embarrassment, during which they were blown out by league opponents by 40-plus points. A year ago, they were more likely to be clubbed by double digits than edged by singles. This season, they have lost seven games by a total of 26 points.
That may not be winning, but it's not getting laughed out of the gym, either.
It may be eating humble pie, but it's making humble progress, too.
Is that too condescending?
"I'm tired of talking about whether it's a moral victory," Krystkowiak said. "Whether you're winning or losing, you just keep busting your butt."
And so the Utes are.
After watching them get destroyed nightly last season and openly mocked on a national scale, hovering anywhere near .500 this time around would be something for them not only to hang a little hope on, but to celebrate. Truth may not be relative, but winning is.
Krystkowiak correctly concluded: "We're not going to a gunfight with knives anymore."
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.