The losing slide wasn’t going to stop by itself. And so, facing a potential fifth consecutive loss, the Utah men’s basketball team played one of their best defensive games in weeks and controlled the glass as well as they have since the start of Pac-12 play.
Utah exorcised several demons that had haunted them in recent weeks on its way to a 70-62 win over Washington in front of an announced crowd of 12,378 in the Huntsman Center on Thursday night. Utah (11-7, 3-4 Pac-12) gave up the second-fewest points against a conference opponent, won the rebounding battle, and limited their bad decisions while attacking a zone defense.
“I think it was a must win,” freshman forward Donnie Tillman said. “I think it was just a game for us to continue trending up. That’s really it. We [were] all taking about, ‘We have to win. We gotta do whatever it takes.’ I think that’s where our effort and competitiveness came from, that mindset — just getting down and dirty and let’s grind it out.”
Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored a team-high 20 points, while David Collette (10 points) and Donnie Tillman (14 points) rounded out the Utes scoring leaders.
The 5-foot-8 Bibbins grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, while sophomore Jayce Johnson pulled down eight rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench. The Utes grabbed a season-high 18 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded Washington 43-35 overall.
When asked if he was surprised that Bibbins led the team in rebounding, Collette responded, “No. All our big guys did a great job of boxing out (chuckling). We told him, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”
Tillman quipped with a laugh, “I gave him three.”
The jovial postgame attitude was a result of the Utes having led for the final 27 minutes of the game. The Utes went into halftime with an 11-point lead even when they hadn’t shot particularly well (40.7 percent from the field and 4 of 15 on 3-pointers).
“As I wrote on the board before the game, this is not a game where plays are going to win the game for you offensively,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “This is a mindset game where the players are going to go make the plays.”
The Utes held the Huskies to 24 first-half points and under 40 percent shooting for the game (38.5 percent). The Huskies were 2 of 18 from behind the 3-point arc.
The Utes had struggled mightily in their past two games defending the 3-point line. USC made a season-high 14 3-pointers on Sunday, and UCLA made 12 of 23 last Thursday.
Rebounding had been an ongoing issue for the Utes during conference play, being outrebounded by an average of 7.2 per game. Johnson and Seeley (six points, five rebounds) combined for 13 rebounds off the bench to help turn that statistic around for the night..
The Utes had their biggest lead in the game after a Collette layup with 10:56 remaining made it 51-38. The Huskies pulled within 64-60 on a pair of Noah Dickerson free throws with 1:58 left, but Tillman grabbed two critical offensive rebounds in the final two minutes to allow the Utes to continue milking time off the clock. Tillman, Bibbins and Sedrick Barefield each made free throws in the final 1:05 to preserve the win.
“We’ve had a lack of effort and energy that last couple games,” Collette said. “We just came out and played like we should.”