Utah Utes basketball is not extinct, and Thursday’s loss to No. 9 UCLA proved it

Attendance for Utah basketball games has waned in recent years, but there were signs of life this week at the Huntsman Center

Walking into the Huntsman Center on Thursday evening, roughly 90 minutes before the University of Utah hosted UCLA, you notice what you always notice these days upon entering the venerable 15,000-seat arena.

The upper bowl was completely curtained off.

Nearly two years ago, athletic department officials decided to curtain off 43% of the seats, lowering the basketball seating capacity of the Pac-12′s largest building to 8,500. It wasn’t an issue during the 2020-21 season, as the Utes played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So this season has been the first with fans in just the lower bowl.

That Utah athletic department has made clear that if ticket demand for a given game called for it, the upper bowl would be opened. That’s happened once this season: Nov. 27 against BYU, which drew 11,443 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

That brings us back to the UCLA Bruins, 63-58 winners over the Utes on Thursday evening. The No. 9 team in the country was in town. A Final Four participant a year ago, among the Pac-12 favorites now, a reasonable selection to go to the Final Four again. When the Pac-12 released its full conference schedule in September, the Bruins were the most-attractive team on Utah’s home slate.

There was not enough demand to get the upper bowl opened Thursday. There wasn’t even enough want-to from the fan base to get the lower bowl filled as the Utes announced an attendance of 7,785. A lack of general interest as Utah has struggled over the last month is one thing, a 9 p.m. scheduled tipoff on a weeknight is quite another.

As this game finally tipped off at 9:15 p.m. after a delay due to Fox Sports 1′s broadcast of UConn-Butler running long, the place felt empty, save for one thing. On the opening-few possessions, the loudest noise in the building was coming from the UCLA bench, which was chanting “DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE.” That came as the Bruins (12-2, 4-1 Pac-12) raced out to a 12-3 lead at the first media timeout.

Things then took an unexpected turn. Utah (8-11, 1-8 Pac-12) started defending at a high level. The Utes shot the lights out, they got contributions from all over the place, they played 11 guys inside the first 8:00, they went toe-to-toe with the Bruins, getting the better of the final 16:00 of that first half in taking a 32-31 lead to halftime.

In the middle of this, the atmosphere shifted. The MUSS, Utah’s student section which is generally 7,000 strong at Rice-Eccles Stadium for football, finally showed up at the Huntsman Center and made itself known. The 7,785 who showed up late Thursday night sent Utah to the halftime locker room to a well-deserved ovation after one more strong defensive possession that ended in Bruins guard Jules Bernard forcing an 18-foot jumper from the right wing with a hand in his face.

“I do want to thank the fans that came out tonight, it felt like a home-court advantage tonight,” Utah head coach Craig Smith said. “They really got into the game and willed our team.”

The second half was marked by emotional swings. Gabe Madsen’s 3-pointer from the left wing elicited one of the louder roars of the evening, giving Utah a 51-50 lead with 5:56 left. In a half marked by spotty officiating, Marco Anthony getting dinged for a questionable foul on Johnny Juzang with 1:50 left elicited another loud roar, this one of the booing variety, followed by another chorus of boos as it was replayed on the video board.

Down three late, Madsen missed on a good look near the right baseline to tie the game with eight seconds left. Anthony corralled that offensive rebound, and kicked it to Stefanovic for a wide-open look, which also missed from straightaway. Anthony fouled Bernard, everyone headed the other way to the opposite free throw line for Bernard to ice the game. In between fans moving towards the exit, another audible ovation broke out, this one in appreciation of the Utes playing hard, playing tough for 40 minutes. Utah had delivered despite the loss, as did the atmosphere despite the lack of an upper bowl, not to mention the lack of people in the lower bowl.

“I just want to thank our fans for showing up for this late game and being with us for 40 minutes,” said Stefanovic, detouring away from the media’s first postgame question in order to offer his appreciation. “We play much better with their support. I really want to thank them for that, and I really hope they’re going to show up for Saturday’s game (vs. USC) because we need them.”

Taking everything into account, Thursday felt like proof enough that Utah basketball is not yet extinct, as some argue. That argument is rooted in the upper bowl situation, rooted in the stagnation of the final years of the Larry Krystkowiak era, rooted in Smith getting off to a rocky start, and yes, rooted in a certain faction of fans demanding that it be 1998 for all of eternity.

No, this basketball program is not extinct. It may be trying to wake up from hibernation, but extinct, it is not. There was too much good happening Thursday, too much fight, too much noise for that to be the case.

It’s a process. Smith has said his team has been practicing well, has been getting better. Thursday felt like a clear step forward, Saturday against another top-20 team in USC may offer another. Eventually, not this season, but eventually, if things fall into place, this hibernation may end.

At a minimum, there may eventually be enough steps forward to at least get the upper bowl opened on a more regular basis.