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December 20, 2011Utah experienced its first win streak of the season on Monday night, as the Utes hung on to defeat the Portland Pilots 72 to 67 behind a strong defensive effort.
Josh Watkins led the way for the Utes as he finished with a career high 26 points (11 from the foul line) and six assists. Jason Washburn continued his solid play as he provided a solid inside presence on both ends of the court with 18 points, seven rebounds, and two blocked shots.
Watkins has begun a transformation ever since coming back from his brief one game suspension. The Utes' senior leader is no longer forcing his shots and trying to do too much. Instead he is getting his points within the flow of the offense and guys like Washburn, Cedric Martin (11 points), and Dijon Farr (nine points) have become beneficiaries of his play.
"I found my teammates early [with] five assists out of the gate and as I found them the game kind of opened up for me because guys kind of sagged off and that led me to penetrate," said Watkins.
The defensive intensity in the first half was a refreshing sight to see for Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak. The Utes held the Pilots to one field goal in the first nine minutes of the game and built a sizeable lead. "When we play some defense the rim seems to get bigger for us on the other end," said Krystkowiak.
The Utes opened the game "playing like every possession was their last," according to Watkins. "The first five minutes we came out and punched them in the mouth just to see what they were gonna do."
Despite the team effort in the first half the Utes started the second half on a sluggish pace. "I thought it was kind of two different games," said Coach Krystkowiak after watching the Utes lose a 12 point halftime lead when the Pilots tied the game at 55 a piece.
"Just because the rim gets big in the first half doesn't mean its gonna be easy in the second half. We kind of got into a situation where we were in some uncharted territory at halftime with the comfortable lead, getting a little bit fat and sassy and I think that part of a learning experience we haven't crossed yet," he said.
Coach Krystkowiak described the second half battle as "kind of a punch, counter punch thing, back and forth and (we) managed to make some plays when we needed to pull away."
The second half proved to be a test of character for a Utah squad seems to be building much needed confidence over the last five halves of play.
"When they came back we stood firm and I'm proud of our guys," said Washburn. The junior center proved to be the defensive catalyst along with junior Dijon Farr as they battled for timely rebounds. Coach Krystkowiak felt that Washburn's two blocked shots were two of the biggest plays of the game.
While it seems that the entire team has finally gotten on the same page with one another, the core of Watkins, Washburn, Martin, and Farr have stepped to the forefront as leaders of the team.
Watkins has become a reliable floor general. Washburn has begun to dominate the paint. Martin has become the go-to-guy behind the three-point line. The player that does not get enough credit however, is Farr as he does so many things that do not show up in the box score.
"He's a workhorse. He works hard every possession He don't give guys any shots. He got some big rebounds, some good shots for us. He's a real important piece to this puzzle," said Watkins as he discussed Farr.
For a center like Washburn, Farr makes his job easier. "He just fights and finds a way. You can never sleep on him," said Washburn.
Despite the late scare towards the end of the game the Utes were able to hold of the pesky Pilots. While it was not the most perfect game, the Utes learned that they can find a way win the close games.
"It's just a great feeling when you're able to kind of learn some lessons and not deal with a loss," said Coach Krystkowiak.
"We showed, toughness, we didn't fold," said Watkins.