Monson: Utah’s desperate men breathe deep in big win over UCLA

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Parker Van Dyke (5) is celebrated by his team after playing a critical role in their win over UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

The story to be told here, its most important part, was scribbled in the final moments all over Larry Krystkowiak’s face — in the competitive push and pull, in a coach’s joy and in his anguish and then in his joy, again. In his relief.

After the Utah-UCLA game ended on Thursday night, the Utes winning by the count of 84-78, Krystkowiak shook his head, credited his team, credited veteran leadership, credited heaven and earth, credited divine intervention.

The coach said he is no expert on the afterlife, but proclaimed, “Jon Huntsman is up there pulling some strings for the Utes.”

More likely, the Utes pulled their own strings, playing with desperate purpose.

Wedgedin the crush of the pressure-packed din of the Huntsman Center,Krystkowiak’s desperate men did their battle against UCLA’s desperateBruins. Desperation was here, there, everywhere,. Not in thegloom-and-doom, pity-my-poor-pathetic-soul sense, rather in thehungry-and-urgent, my-supply-of-life-giving-oxygen-will-choke-me-out-if-I-don’t-get-my-tank-refilled sense.

And, ultimately, at altitude, it was the motivation of that potential lack of air, that drive for breath found within the Utes that fed them what they needed.

Fundamentally, Utah had to accomplish a couple things against UCLA — namely, limit its scoring — the Bruins are second in the Pac-12 in points — and make headway against an opponent that doesn’t enjoy playing much defense — it ranks 10th in the league in points yielded. One other item: The Utes had to fortify their home. UCLA has not been good on the road, and that’s exactly where it found itself here.

As it turned out, Utah succeeded in taking advantage, the score indicating the plus-minus in points for and points against, the shooting percents sitting at 53 for the Utes, 42 for UCLA. That was the difference.

Midway through the first half, Utah trailed by four points. For a few minutes, the Utes got a scare when David Collette, who hit his first four shots, limped off the floor just over five minutes in. But he returned and hit another five without a miss, contributing in the most efficient way to an offensive effort that stood out.

In the back half, a Utes lead went to 11, then 14 and, next thing, the Bruins charged back. They pressured the Utes into mistakes that hurt. The margin shrunk to six points, then to four, then to three, eventually to one. But a couple of Parker Van Dyke bombs, followed by clutch foul shooting slammed the door.

And as the last seconds slid off the clock, the Utes could brrreeeaaaatttthhhhee.

All that had taken place, leaned up against what was at stake, added context to that which was going on. And that context is what made this game different than so many other routine February college basketball contests.

Krystkowiak said afterward the whole affair wasn’t life or death, but deep down he knew UCLA had to win this game, and so did Utah. Not simply on account of the numerical, but because of perception. The Bruins came in at 10-5 in conference play, 19-8 overall, and the Utes stood at 9-6, 17-9 in total. On both sides, there were seeding considerations on the line for the coming Pac-12 tournament.

But also in play was recognition and respect. There was plenty of wiggle room for an unconvinced selection committee watching on ESPN to flop around in, so much space in which to dilly and dally and disappoint.

Indeed, nearly 30 games in, Utah and UCLA had achieved this much in the run-up to March: the dreaded bubble status. Each team had exhibited enough good to be in the conversation for inclusion and enough bad to be left on the cold side of the door. And with just a couple more regular-season games remaining, this was no occasion to fall again toward the latter.

That was the case especially for Utah, a team that has been on a bit of a roll of late, but that also remembered with exactness the unbalanced beating it took at the hands of UCLA on the road last month. This was a chance to level that out, and to set up another leveling against USC at the Huntsman on Saturday.

That flattening went the way the Utes hoped.

“It was a close call,” Krystkowiak said. “It was survival of the fittest, who wants it a little more.”

On Thursday night, that perfectly described his own bunch of desperadoes.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.