Utah already staged one “Red Out” promotion at the Huntsman Center this season, but the crazy nature of this Pac-12 basketball season merited another gimmick Thursday night.
As their game vs. USC unfolded, the Utes learned they would find themselves either alone in third place in the conference or in a six-way tie for third, via a win or loss.
Utah won. The red uniforms, new red shoes and suits worn by the players and the suits and ties modeled by the coaching staff proved to be the right formula in a critical 83-74 victory.
The Ute coaches had won football coach-style shirts and pants during the Pac-12 season, but they upgraded their fashion game for USC's visit.
“A lot of us forgot how to tie ties,” coach Larry Krystkowiak joked, after having asked his staff to dress up for the sake of the team’s seniors – with three of them in the starting lineup for the first time in nearly four months.
On the court, the Utes (16-13, 10-7 Pac-12) looked sharp in the game's first 30 minutes, building a 16-point lead. The closest the Trojans (15-15, 8-9) came after that was within seven points, as the Utes played their most complete game since beating USC in Los Angeles four weeks ago.
The Utes likely will have no worse than a No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, depending on potential tiebreakers, but they probably have to beat UCLA on Saturday to earn a first-round bye next week in Las Vegas.
On the locker-room whiteboard, Krystkowiak had written that the Utes would need “a bunch of warriors” in the absence of center Jayce Johnson. They got balanced scoring, outrebounded USC 32-23 and produced 17 second-chance points to the Trojans' one.
Parker Van Dyke led the Utes with 20 points, after going scoreless with 0-for-5 shooting last weekend at Colorado, where the whole team struggled. Timmy Allen added 19 points, Sedrick Barefield had 17 and Donnie Tillman and Both Gach scored 10 each. Barefield and fill-in center Novak Topalovic each grabbed seven rebounds.
“We've had a hard time with coming out with the right intensity at home, and that's something we wanted to fix,” Barefield said.
Bennie Boatwright, Nick Rakocevic and Elijah Weaver each scored 17 points for USC.
Last month in Los Angeles, the Utes dominated USC for the game’s first 38 minutes, before the Trojans’ late run made the score (77-70) reasonably close. This game played out similarly, although the Trojans’ rally this time came soon enough to make Utah agonize in the last two minutes.
Johnson had played one of his better games last month in the Utes' win over USC in Los Angeles, posting 13 points and 13 rebounds. Topalovic started in Johnson's absence and Van Dyke also returned to the starting lineup, marking the first time since a Nov. 12 loss at Minnesota that Krystkowiak used this starting five. In the minutes when Topalovic rested, Krystkowiak went with a small lineup.
“I just had to to have the mentality that we were going to get [rebounds] and make up for Jayce's absence.
The Trojans didn't really exploit Utah's interior defense in the first half, but they made enough 3-pointers to stay within 42-36. USC responded after the Utes went ahead by 12 points, in contrast to the way the Trojans trailed by 20 points in the first half in February.
Utah's offense was crisp as the second half began, with Barefield coming to life. The senior guard made an unusual play, stealing the ball and then hitting a pull-up 3-pointer. The Utes stretched their lead to 66-50 with 10 minutes left when Allen dunked a lob pass from Tillman.
The victory gives the Utes a chance to post a winning record in Pac-12 home games for a sixth straight season. Utah is 4-4 in conference games at the Huntsman Center with UCLA coming to town Saturday.
“The next one is our biggest game of the season, too,” Allen said.