Monson: Utah basketball won't willingly fly flag of permanent defeat
At the end of Utah's game with Stanford on Saturday night, Larry Krystkowiak beamed as his players raced to midcourt and hugged one another because ... well, he had to. How else is a man forced to stand and watch his team get beaten in earlier games this season by 40 and 36 points, and, even worse, by 17 at the hands and elbows and feet and knees of the worst team in the Pac-12 supposed to react?
"It was tremendous," he said afterward. "When [wins] come few and far between, this feels awfully good."
Seconds later, as the first-year Ute coach stood in front of his team in the locker room, he couldn't even give utterance.
"This is the first time I've been speechless," he said. "It was neat to hear the silence. I just wanted to feel the chills from winning the game."
In a season of many words and few chills, the Utes somehow in their final home game found a way to beat the Cardinal, 58-57. After guard Chris Hines hit a ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointer from the left side with 27 seconds remaining, the thing came down to the last possession, when Stanford missed a bomb and the Utes celebrated. It was their first victory in their last nine tries, their sixth win overall against 22 losses.
Troubles had gotten so severe at times for Krystkowiak, he had to look at the sweated-through jerseys of his players as, in the eloquent words of Ernest Hemingway, the flags of permanent defeat.
Hines called this season "a whirlwind."
But Krystkowiak also allowed, "You don't always have to be winning games to win."
Against the Cardinal, after falling behind in customary manner, by 10 points in the initial nine minutes, Utah charged back to take a slim lead before the break. The highlight of that run was a Jason Washburn 3-pointer as the shot clock evaporated. Nobody at the Huntsman Center could remember the last time the Ute big man had hit a deep ball because ... he had never hit one before.
Talk about the sweet edge of a promising night.
Utah held on for dear life through the back half, scrambling on defense and showing aggressiveness on offense not seen in previous outings. In their last three games, the Utes had shot a total of 21 free throws. On Saturday night alone, they shot 21.
"We made some big shots," Krystkowiak said, and he called the win "huge."
Still, there are no new conclusions to draw about Utah basketball based on what happened here. The Utes are not a particularly talented team, a fact that is not their fault. They are what they are. They are playing for Krystkowiak and his down program because he or a former Utah coach recruited them. More often than not, they aren't as good as the other guys, even in the Pac-12, a league not filled with strong teams.
But they have progressed this season, a time when everybody knew they would struggle after Jim Boylen was shown the door and a few of his better players on a bad team followed him through it.
Krystkowiak is simply trying to drill the foundation of a new attitude into the bedrock beneath his program. It's not even a matter of developing the players he has into stars. Some of the guys here won't be on future Ute teams. They'll have to go.
The coach already has signed five newcomers, and his assistants are still actively recruiting. Past Washburn, a 6-10 junior who played the best game of his life against Stanford 17 points and six blocks and Hines, who had 19 points and seven boards, as well as injured center David Foster, there aren't any difference-makers in the fold.
The Utes have learned to play hard, though. And that counts for a lot, even on a team that ranks near or at the bottom of almost every meaningful Pac-12 statistical category.
They battle honorably, just the way they did against Stanford. Only this time they were rewarded for their effort with a rare win.
"We just keep fighting to the end," Krystkowiak said. "And it was really a great ending."
Added Washburn: "It was kind of like a dream."
The Utes may end up losing four times as many games as they win this season, but the flag of defeat presently flying over their program is not permanent. It's bound to fade, the way it did on Saturday night.