Utah basketball: Utes blow lead vs. Portland but hang on for 2nd straight win
The idea of the Utes winning a basketball game, even a week ago, was a reach. An actual, bona fide, more-than-one winning streak?
Unthinkable with a big, red block "U."
But in a matter of 72 hours, it happened for the Utah men's basketball team. Seventy-two hours bookending a dreary weekend, just enough time for office workers to show up on a Monday and marvel that the Utes won once before the same group, considered among the worst power conference teams ever, went out and did it again.
The Utes frittered away a 16-point lead but held on to beat the University of Portland 72-67 Monday to improve their record to 3-8 and their optimism to through the roof.
"Two in a row I think speaks for itself," center Jason Washburn said.
So did eight straight losses, but with their recent performances the Utes have turned "woe" into "whoa" even if the wins have come against Portland (3-9) and Idaho State (2-8).
Josh "Jiggy" Watkins led the Utes with a career-high 26 points, while Washburn contributed 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Utes controlled the game throughout. They opened the game with a 9-1 lead, which, by the 6:09 mark of the first half, had grown to 28-12.
That it became a close game after such a quick start may have been more surprising than the winning streak.
But the Pilots pulled within five early in the second half and, with eight minutes remaining, tied the game at 55.
"Early in the season we might have folded, kept our heads down," Watkins said. "But we kept our heads held high, we took the lead and came out with the win."
It was thanks to the Utes' most thorough effort that they didn't suffer their ninth loss of the season.
The Utes drew three charges before the Pilots even scored at the start of the game, and Cedric Martin took one more in the final minute to foul out Pilots forward Ryan Nicholas, who led Portland with 13 points.
Meanwhile, Washburn blocked a pair of shots in the last minute as the Pilots furiously tried to shoot their way back into the game, closing the gap to three points with 11 seconds left.
"In close games like that you need a couple of plays like that to keep the momentum in your favor," Washburn said.
Not that the Utes have known much about close games this season. Their eight losses were by an average 21 points. That prompted a dialogue on the Utes bench when the Pilots tied the game at 55 that Krystkowiak was able to laugh about following the win.
"Somebody said a month ago if the score was tied we wouldn't have ben able to win this game," Krystkowiak recalled. "And then one of our other coaches quipped, 'Well, a month ago the score wasn't even close to being tied.' "
Portland missed four free throws at that critical juncture, missing its chance to take the lead and, maybe, deny the Utes their modest winning streak.
"It feels good," Watkins said. "It shows the team chemistry we have. Maybe it took those losses to show us what we need to do."
Storylines Jiggy lifts the Utes
R Josh Watkins scores a career-high 26 points to lead the Utes.
• Two other Utes score in double figures: Jason Washburn (18) and Cedric Martin (11).
• Portland overcomes a 16-point first-half deficit to tie it at 55 with eight minutes left, but the Utes go on a 13-6 run.