Utah guard Parker Van Dyke started Thursday night's game vs. Arizona almost as spectacularly as he finished Saturday's win at UCLA, making five 3-pointers in the first half.
That level of production was not sustainable, so the Utes would need another scorer to emerge in the second half if they intended to overtake the Wildcats. Jayce Johnson? The junior center probably was not high on anyone's list for that role.
And then he proceeded to score all of his career-high 17 points in the second half of the Utes' 83-76 victory at the Huntsman Center.
Just as impressively, having missed a big chunk of the first half with foul trouble, Johnson played all but 23 seconds of the second half. Thanks partly to injuries, Johnson's lack of conditioning and tendency to foul never would have allowed him to do that in the past.
If anyone needed convincing that Utah's season was developing into something worthwhile, Van Dyke's buzzer-beating shot at UCLA was the first sign. Johnson's second-half showing against the Pac-12's flagship program – never mind the Wildcats' six-game losing streak and 10th-place standing – was the next marker.
Just like that, the Utes (14-10, 8-4 Pac-12) are alone in second place for the second time this season. Van Dyke helped get them there with a career-high 23 points that featured seven 3-pointers, one short of the school record. “A little magic came home with me, I guess, from Westwood,” said Van Dyke, who hit five 3s during the Utes' rally from 22 points down in the last 12 minutes Saturday.
If not for Van Dyke's shooting, the Utes may have fallen behind by a lot more than 32-31 at halftime Thursday. And they wouldn't have staged their decisive, 18-2 run to a 66-51 lead without Johnson, who anchored their interior defense, rebounded the ball and scored six points in that stretch.
The word ‘process’ is pasted all over our facility,” Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said, describing Johnson’s development. “A lot of people want to speed this thing up. … Of all the people I’ve coached, he’s just one of those guys who wants to do the right thing. There’s not a guy that plays harder. And so it’s kind of fitting to have him reaping some of the benefits of perseverance and everything. He’s undoubtedly getting better, right before our eyes.”
Assists from Van Dyke and Sedrick Barefield, plus Johnson's offensive rebounding, aided his scoring.
Johnson's second-half performance was vital to Utah, because backup center Novak Topalovic struggled so much in a brief first-half stint that Krystkowiak gave meaningful minutes to Brandon Morley for the first time in conference play.
Utah's effort to pull away from Arizona (14-11, 5-7) continued as the second half unfolded, with nothing suggesting that either team could take command. Yet that's exactly what the Utes did, via their 18-2 burst in about 4½ minutes.
The Utes never were going to have a better opportunity to beat Arizona, with the Wildcats struggling lately and missing guard Brandon Williams. The Utes wore their red uniforms, as the 2016 team did in the program's only previous Pac-12 win over Arizona. None of Utah's current players were involved in that game, but they all knew about the history vs. the Wildcats.
The Utes remembered losing at Arizona in overtime in early January, when Van Dyke's would-be winning attempt rimmed out of the basket. His seven 3-pointers Thursday marked a career high; he knows the school record is eight by Johnnie Bryant, so he was mildly disappointed when his last attempt rolled around the rim. He probably would have liked one more, someone suggested in the postgame interview.
“Maybe two more,” Van Dyke replied, smiling.
That would be somewhat greedy. But the senior was entitled to take everything he could get, in what’s likely to be his last shot against Arizona.