The collective sigh of relief heard round the State of Utah Wednesday night was the sound of Ute fans finally seeing their wishes of a close Ute win come true.
For the first time in conference play, Utah basketball earned a 60-55 win in a close game Wednesday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. While the Utes had won a couple of close games already this season, those came as a result of Utah simply hanging on to win after taking a big lead early on, rather than going out and taking control of a tight one down the stretch as they did Wednesday night.
After a frustrating season, it would have been hard to fathom another post-game explanation for yet another close loss, especially at home.
Although Utah went into halftime with a 29-22 lead, they came out cold to start the second half. Lethargic in the first minutes of the second half, Utah scored only two points in a five minute span, allowing Arizona State to go on a 7-0 run and close the halftime deficit. In the first seven minutes of the second half, Utah scored only six points. Fortunately, Arizona State went cold and scored only eight points in that same span.
A three pointer by Jordan Loveridge, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds, ended the drought, however temporarily as Utah would go on another long scoring drought. This time a five minute stretch which netted just five Utah points. That drought ultimately put the Sun Devils up by eight points with 7:17 remaining.
Looking at Utah's history in similar instances, things were looking grim, however it found a way to get back into the game on the strength of a 13-4 run down the stretch.
The result was head coach Larry Krystkowiak on the right side of a close game press conference.
"It's sure nice to be talking about that side of the equation, because unfortunately, we haven't done a great job of closing out some games," said a happy Krystkowiak. "We started talking about it prior to the Oregon game, and I think our guys are really starting to buy into it. In the middle of the game, forget the big picture, and what the score is, but start winning four minute segments of the game."
With the win Utah improved to 11-13, 3-9, but needed a monster game, in fact, a career game from senior center Jason Washburn to do it.
Washburn scored 15 first half points to carry the Utes and out-scored his entire team 15-14. The senior, who has only three remaining home games as a Ute finished with 26 points and nine rebounds.
"Their bigs are some of the elite defenders in the league, so they take me one on one, and I feel like I have a really good chance one-on-one," Washburn explained his success against ASU. "When I get the ball where I need to get it, I feel like I can go up against them one on one. My teammates and coach just keep feeding it to me, and I was able to have success."
Ute guards Jarred DuBois and Brandon Taylor each had rough nights, combining for 2-13 shooting (15.3%), but hit key shots when it counted most, especially from the charity stripe late in the game.
After hitting 3-3 from the line in the first half, Utah got aggressive in its late-half run, getting to the line 20 times in the second half. Though Utah missed its first five free throw shots of the second half, it nailed the final fifteen, going 8-8 within the last three minutes of the game.
Taylor contributed just five points on the night, but his first, and only made bucket of the night was a timely one. Taylor knocked down a long three at the 2:09 mark to bring the Utes to within one point of Arizona State. As Arizona State looked to be pulling away from the Utes once again to ice the game, and the game at a pivotal 47-53 juncture, Taylor stepped up huge.
Senior guard Jarred DuBois scored just five points as well, with three coming from the free throw line late in the game, made perhaps his biggest play of the game by taking a key charge at the :12 mark, with the game still very much in danger. His subsequent free throws capped off his scoring effort, and locked down the Utes' much-needed victory.
Utah hosts No. 9 ranked Arizona Sunday at 1 PM.