With the shot clock ticking down in the last minute of a tie game, Utah forward Jordan Loveridge drove into the heart of Washington’s defense.
Nobody who has witnessed the final sequences of so many Ute basketball games this season could have reasonably predicted what happened next.
Loveridge crisply passed the ball to the left corner, and Dakarai Tucker drilled a 3-pointer with 37.3 seconds remaining. The clutch play sent Utes toward a 67-61 victory in the Pac-12 tournament’s first round Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
In that moment, Loveridge and Tucker rewrote the story of Utah’s season. Regardless of what happens from this point — including Thursday’s quarterfinal game with No. 1 seed Arizona and postseason competition to come — the Utes (21-10) will walk away from 2013-14 proudly, having left a good impression.
This victory was worth so much, in so many ways. If the Utes had lost again in the end, after blowing so many chances in conference play and leading Washington by 10 points at halftime, it would have been tempting to say they underachieved this season. Instead, they proved they learned something from all those unhappy endings, and they got it right this time.
And the way it unfolded was absolutely perfect, from a coaching perspective. Who knows, maybe Loveridge might have delivered his own winning shot, living up to the huge expectations that accompanied his arrival on campus from West Jordan. But coach Larry Krystkowiak loved how Loveridge listened to what he’d told his team ever since last Saturday’s one-point loss at Stanford.
Sometimes, it’s about "having the faith and the trust in the teammate," Krystkowiak said.
Loveridge believed in Tucker, who was wide open and had the confidence to deliver from the corner. "I was just thinking about going back to my fundamentals, have my elbow in and put more arc on the ball," Tucker said.
It worked nicely.
Utah obviously would like to have maintained control of this game, but dominance is unusual in a meeting of Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in a conference tournament. And as agonizing as the second half was for the Utes, winning this way ultimately did them more good. They won’t have to spend the whole summer lamenting all those missed opportunities.
As the second half began, the Utes experienced the same feeling as a lot of folks in this town who were ahead of the game at one time. Whoa, what just happened here? They lost all of their 10-point lead in the first nine minutes before steadying themselves, never trailing by more than one point.
Yet even after going up by five points after Loveridge’s consecutive baskets, Utah almost failed to put away the Huskies. Two key possessions ended with Loveridge’s offensive foul and his missed shot in the lane.
Loveridge then made two free throws before Washington’s Desmond Simmons made his first foul shot and missed the second, leaving the teams tied at 60 with 1:08 left.
Tucker sent the Utes ahead, then a big defensive stop and Brandon Taylor’s two free throws secured the win. Beating the Huskies basically made up for Utah’s failure to get a higher seed in this tournament. The Utes would have run into Arizona at some point, so it might as well be Thursday.
Krystkowiak knows how well his team has competed against the Pac-12’s flagship program, although those performances have resulted only in "consolation prizes and atta-boys and way to go," he said.
In Wednesday’s case, nobody would have been saying those things, if the Utes had merely come close again.
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