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March 15, 2013

Utes try on glass slipper

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak talked from day one of the 2012-13 season about "making a run in the Pac-12 tournament." Like an incessant drum-beat, that has been his message, understanding that his newly assembled group may take some time to learn, grow, absorb and gel.

"I think that at this point in the season I think that our guys have learned all the lessons they can learn," Krystkowiak observed. "We're putting some things together to where we're not overly deficient in any one area."

His Utes have taken his message to heart, putting together one of the most unlikely runs in recent memory, completing a four-game win streak with their 79-69 take-down of streaking, No. 2 seed Cal. The streak combines Utah's final two regular season wins over Oregon State and Oregon, and its two Pac-12 tournament games.

In trying on Cinderella's glass slipper for size, the Utes have now notched wins over USC and Cal, whom Utah had gone a combined 0-4 against this season.

Facing an uphill battle against Cal, who, as of March 4 had an RPI of 43. Coming into the tournament, Cal had established itself as one of the top defenses in the conference, which was daunting for a Utah team who has struggled to score all season long, and is the Pac-12's last-place scoring offense. Cal finished the season second in the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 63 points and first in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to .394 shooting on the season.

Utah shot 54.2 percent in the first half, which was evened out with a 35.7 percentage in the second, equating to a 47.3 overall shooting percentage.

The overtime thriller became an instant Pac-12 finish, whose wild finish and unlikely comeback by Utah will be hard to forget for years to come. Utah came out hot, shooting 89 percent through the first seven and a half minutes of the game and then proceeded to go over four minutes without scoring a single point, spanning from the 9:49 mark through to the 5:46 mark of the half.

Fortunately, Cal went on a similar drought after staging their own comeback originating at the midway point of the half to tie the game at 18 all at 11:17. The game was full of emotional swings, with five lead changes and seven ties in the first half alone, and Cal would survive the first twenty minutes of physical, fast-paced play, taking a 33-32 lead into halftime.

The second half was something was a slug-fest, with each team alternately taking swings at each other, resulting in a defensive stand-off. Utah came out of the locker room cold, managing just 27 points in the second half and hit an eight minute scoring drought beginning at the 18:14 mark, which finally ended at the 11:30 mark which yielded Cal an eight point lead.

Utah fought and clawed its way back playing good defense of its own, and a scoring run sparked by two quick scores by freshman Jordan Loveridge as the Utes played their way to a 50-all tie at the 6:21 mark.

What ensued will go down in lore, as the two teams countered one another seemingly at every turn, and several Utes stepped up in the final two minutes making plays to keep the team in the game, resulting in a true team win.

With Cal up 57-54 with just :28 left plus possession, the Golden Bears missed a shot, with Loveridge grabbing the defensive rebound. With time running out, Loveridge put up a three-pointer that didn't look to have a prayer before Cal's Tyrone Wallace committed the cardinal sin of fouling a three-point shooter in the act.

Loveridge stepped up to the line and knocked down his first to charity shots, but missed the third, leaving Utah deficient to the tune of 56-57 with :18 left on the clock. Utah senior Cedric Martin was whistled for the foul, putting Cal's Allen Crabbe on the free throw line. Crabbe knocked down both shots, putting Cal up 59-56 with :17 remaining.

Failing to accept defeat, Utah senior Jarred DuBois threw up a three-point shot; a prayer, really, with just :04 left on the clock, tying the game at 59-all.

Using the momentum from the comeback and DuBois' unlikely shot, the Utes cruised through overtime, jumping out to an immediate five point lead from which they never looked back. It was Jordan Loveridge once again who did all the damage in overtime, scoring eight of his 20 points on the night in the overtime session.

Loveridge would finish with aforementioned 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, which head coach Larry Krystkowiak attributed to the conference's lack of acknowledgment for Loveridge's freshman campaign.

"It was kind of a coach's dream when the All-Conference announcements came out, and for a young man to be fourth in scoring and second in rebounding as a freshman, I really thought he was deserving maybe not a first-team situation, but he needed three votes to receive an honorable mention," said Krystkowiak. "I know Jordan really plays well with a chip on his shoulder, and I think that's kind of what we're seeing right now, is trying to prove some people wrong."

Senior center Jason Washburn overcame a slow start to finish with 18 points, five rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one steal. Freshman Brandon Taylor added a timely 10 points, as did Glen Dean with his key six points. Dakarai Tucker and Jeremy Olsen each added two points.

While the Utes briefly celebrated their upset victory, they quickly moved to the task ahead, citing the fact that there was more work to be done.

Indeed, Utah will face No. 3 seed Oregon Friday night at 8:38 PST, which will air on ESPN.


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