The basketball popped into the air, landing in the hands of Utah guard Delon Wright, and the Huntsman Center crowd screamed and exhaled in that wonderful mixture of joy and relief in the last few seconds Saturday afternoon.
The Utes secured a 74-69 victory over No. 25 UCLA, finally proving they could win a close game in Pac-12 play — even if this thing probably never should have fallen into that category.
A game that was trending toward a blowout as of midway through the second half became “a little spooky,” by Larry Krystkowiak’s account. Utah’s coach nicely captured the sense in the building as “a little bit of a gulp” as UCLA rallied from 17 points down, but the Utes steadied themselves and delivered a landmark victory.
Utah upset No. 19 Oregon last March, but the Ducks lack the cachet of UCLA. This is the value of Pac-12 membership, in a snapshot: UCLA coming to the Huntsman Center, and Utah winning. That’s how Utah can continue to recruit Los Angeles-area players such as guard Brandon Taylor, who grew up watching the Bruins and said, “It feels good just to be competing against them.”
No school in this league can match UCLA’s history, but the Utes are justifiably proud of their own past. Utah brought back dozens of players from the Western Athletic Conference championship teams of the 1990s, introducing them individually at halftime, giving them Ute-logo watches and generally making them feel part of a program that may have a promising future.
UCLA is UCLA, yet “there’s an awful lot of history in this place,” Krystkowiak said.
And with the likes of Michael Doleac, Josh Grant, Britton Johnsen, Jimmy Soto and Byron Wilson watching, the Utes came through. Dallin Bachynski’s hook, Dakarai Tucker’s corner 3-pointer and Taylor’s two free throws with the lead down to two points in the last 22.4 seconds enabled Utah to close the game in acceptable fashion after wobbling against UCLA’s zone press.
And that’s how Utah’s Jordan Loveridge was able to describe the afternoon as “fun all the way around, from start to finish.”
Fans who agonized so much in the last nine minutes may not agree entirely. This is one of those games that might have gone the other way if it had lasted much longer. Yet over the required 40 minutes, Utah deserved to win.
Krystkowiak lingered in the interview room after the questions stopped, catching himself thinking back to his first season. The roster makeover in two years is so extreme that historical comparisons are basically worthless. Yet the way Krystkowiak and his staff powered through that 6-25 season created a baseline that magnifies Utah’s success.
Ute basketball is fun again. Maybe the product is not quite like the old days of the ’90s. Then again, the opponents of that era lacked the brand recognition of UCLA.
“It’s a proud day for me,” Krystkowiak said, and he was not the only one.
There’s much, much more to be done, starting with winning an occasional Pac-12 road game, but Saturday’s performance was another meaningful checkpoint.
This was more proof of what good recruiting can do in basketball, starting with Loveridge’s 17 points and nine rebounds and Wright’s 12 points, eight boards and six assists. But the Utes wouldn’t have won without contributions from Taylor, Tucker, Bachynski and Kenneth Ogbe, and that’s encouraging. The Bruins got 28 points from Kyle Anderson, but that was not enough for UCLA to beat Utah.
Another school in the Pac-12 has some history going for it, and Utah’s present and future are looking better all the time.