The biggest loser in University of Utah basketball history absolutely deserved this ending.
Everything I’m saying about senior center Jason Washburn is a compliment, including how he has endured 77 defeats in four seasons as an active player, which nobody should have to do and never will have to do again in a program with Utah’s tradition.
Senior Day served as a perfect tribute to Washburn, how he stuck with the Utes through a coaching change, all kinds of turmoil and a bunch of losses, and finally was rewarded. All of that history made Saturday’s 72-62 victory over No. 19 Oregon so much sweeter for Washburn, creating one of the coolest scenes in the Huntsman Center in a long, long time.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Washburn tucked the basketball under his arm, clapped his hands and hugged fellow seniors Cedric Martin and Jarred DuBois, sharing the moment. And then he bounced the ball — technically, a double-dribble violation, but who cares? — and tossed it into the air.
After going through the handshake line with the Ducks, he climbed into the “MUSS” and hugged several students at a time in celebration of his 20-point, 12-rebound performance. It came in the Utes’ most significant victory since the 2008-09 season, when they played in the NCAA Tournament while Washburn was redshirting as a freshman.
“Couldn’t script it any better,” Washburn said later.
He quoted Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak’s belief that the payoff for continual effort is “the basketball gods will smile on you.”
In his Huntsman Center farewell, Washburn drove home the point that there’s hope for this program. His growth in two seasons under Krystkowiak is evidence of improvement that should keep coming for the Utes.
Krystkowiak described his postgame exchange with Washburn as “just one of those moments you never forget,” and this win will have some staying power. Krystkowiak was unwilling to make too much of one game, but Saturday’s performance obviously changes the perception of his program.
No matter what happens in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, the Utes have improved. They’ve won five conference games in a league that will send five teams to the NCAA Tournament, and they cost Oregon a co-championship.
The Ducks are reeling, with two resounding losses to close the regular season. The Utes can take their share of the blame, especially Washburn, who was a dominant force in the first half.
He barely made it through the pregame ceremony, taking several deep breaths as his tribute was read. And then he delivered 15 points and seven rebounds as the Utes took a 44-30 halftime lead before absorbing Oregon’s best shot in the second half with a poised, resilient effort.
“We took down the giant … and it couldn’t have been done in any more of a spectacular fashion,” Washburn said.
The team’s spokesman was entitled to a mild exaggeration in victory, having been asked to explain so many defeats. Then again, the Utes shot 57.7 percent from the field, phenomenal efficiency for a team that has struggled to score.
Washburn’s 18th point came in the first minute of the second half, and he added only one more basket. But that offensive contribution was sufficient, and he anchored a defense that held Oregon to 40 percent shooting.
“He’s come so far in a couple of years as a leader and getting some things done,” Krystkowiak said.
Beating the Ducks certainly was one of them. Mark it down as by far the most memorable of Washburn’s 46 wins as a Ute.