The night produced a game-saving effort from a senior guard who spent one season in Utah’s basketball program and became the team’s most valuable player, followed by an unscripted moment that stemmed from coach Larry Kystkowiak’s choice to stage the honors after the game.
In the end Saturday, the Utes secured a 64-54 victory over Colorado at the Huntsman Center. And as the tributes seemingly were concluding without him, injured forward David Collette walked onto the court with crutches.
The framed jerseys for the players and the flowers for their mothers were traditional stuff. The nicest gift of all? A day off. The Utes awarded themselves that benefit, securing a top-four finish and a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
That’s their reward for rising above preseason forecasts to finish with an 11-7 conference record after playing through some tough moments in the second half Saturday. Colorado cut the Utes’ 17-point halftime lead to four with 9:25 to play. Justin Bibbins, a graduate transfer who described Senior Night as “weird” after recently arriving on campus, stabilized the Utes with a reverse layup. And then Bibbins’ 3-pointer with 55 seconds left gave the Utes a 62-54 lead, topping his 24-point night.
“Not sure where we’d be without him,” said Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak, summarizing this game and, really, the whole season.
If the evening seemed strange for Bibbins, it was even more unusual for the other seniors. Tyler Rawson went 1 of 8 from the field, amid illness that struck him late in the week. Gabe Bealer scored only three points. Jake Connor made a brief appearance. And then there was Collette, who sustained what looked like a severe ankle injury in the game’s first seven minutes.
Collette was examined at a hospital and diagnosed with a sprain; Krystkowiak hopes he’ll play Thursday night in Las Vegas.
Krystkowiak acknowledged deferring the observance until after the game was risky, but it all worked out all well as the Utes honored their five seniors. Five? That’s a bunch. The Utes introduced only four senior members of the spirit squad and three senior musicians in the band. Those groups should dominate the Pac-12 in 2018-19, with so many returnees,
As for the basketball team, having all those seniors creates a talent drain, but the Utes have some good players coming back and what looks like nice influx of personnel.
In any case, earning the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament has to be viewed as an achievement for the Utes and their eclectic senior class.
Basketball is not like football. In that sport, a senior class generally includes athletes who are recruited to the school and play four consecutive seasons. In the case of these Ute seniors, four of them played elsewhere before coming to Utah and Connor (a senior academically) may look for another school as a graduate transfer in the interest of playing time next season.
So the Utes’ backgrounds featured Utah State (Collette), Long Beach State (Bibbins), Southern Utah/Salt Lake Community College (Rawson) and the City College of San Francisco (Bealer) as they celebrated their college careers.
Some years, it is easy to retrace the steps of the seniors, such as the Utes’ Jordan Loveridge/Brandon Taylor/Dakarai Tucker group of 2016. The work of that class was tidily summarized, as those guys became the bedrock of the program’s rebuilding project.
In this case, the trick is trying to remember when each senior entered the program. Bibbins’ history is the simplest to capture, after he played three years at Long Beach. Moving at that point of his life was a big adjustment, he said, “but I found a home here.”
The Utes are thankful he did. Utah’s 14-0 run late in the first half should have ended any mystery about Saturday’s outcome, but Colorado’s run required a response. The turnarounds in this game were not as stark as what happened in 2016, when Colorado stormed ahead with a 16-0 run and the Utes immediately answered with a 19-0 surge to a victory, but there was some agonizing before Bibbins came through.
So with their Pac-12 regular season in the books, the next question is what the Utes would have to do in the interest of earning an NCAA Tournament bid — short of the automatic berth that goes to the champion in Las Vegas. Krystkowiak is “completely convinced” his team can win the tournament and eliminate all those questions. Short of that, what would it take? One win? Getting to the championship game?
We’ll find out, one way or another. As of Saturday, the Utes (19-10) were allowed to have some satisfaction, mixed with ambitions. In his taped message to the seniors, Krystkowiak quoted the late Jon Huntsman Sr.’s saying, “Go big.”