Saturday in Seattle marked a milestone win for the University of Utah basketball team, and for second year coach Larry Krystkowiak.
Krystkowiak earned just the second road win of his career at Utah against the surging Washington Huskies, made all the more important because it was also Utah's first Pac-12 road win.
Utah faced long heading into Alaska Airlines Stadium at 0-12 in Pac-12 conference play over the course of last season, and the first six conference games of 2012-2013, and in Krystkowiak's two seasons, Utah was 1-21 on the road.
With the historic win, Utah scratched its way back to a .500 record at 9-9 overall and 1-5 in conference play, while Washington dropped to 12-6 overall and 4-1 in conference play. As one of two teams with un-blemished conference records, Washington's loss to Utah Saturday leaves Oregon atop conference standings in sole possession of first place.
Playing inspired defense, and offense for a full 40 minutes was the difference for the Utes, who have endured a painful stretch of losses of late. Krystkowiak's team has shown an ability to do both for stretches of games, but never both for the entirety of a game.
While most may have preferred they had done so sooner, the Utes chose a good time to show up for an entire game, reeling from five straight conference losses. In short, they had to stop the bleeding, and for the first time all season, the Utes came out swinging.
For the first time in conference play, Utah led the Huskies from start to finish, and managed to hold the lead, though Washington got a little too close for comfort at the end.
At the 8:21 mark of the second half, Utah held its largest lead, 15, which Washington cut in half over the remaining minutes of the contest, ultimately falling by a score of 74-65.
Utah seemingly cashed in all its chips and had all the karma that had previously gone against it in several close losses where every bounce of the ball, every call and every break went in favor of whomever happened to be playing Utah that night.
Utah jumped out to a 12-4 lead to start the game, never looking back as it ended the half shooting 58.3 percent from the floor, carrying an eight point 33-25 lead with it into halftime.
Senior center Jason Washburn carried the Utes in the first half, scoring 14 points in the first half before ultimately finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds. Freshman forward Jordan Loveridge also had a huge effort with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists.
The duo have been two of Utah's better scorers, and typically must have big nights in order for the Utes to compete night in and night out.
Freshman point guard Brandon Taylor, however, has sporadically shown an ability to score but never with any consistency. Of late the youngster out of West Hollywood (Calif.) has started to come on, capping of his emergence with a career-high 9 points, two rebounds and another career-high six assists.
The offensive explosion was what Krystkowiak was looking for when, earlier in the week, he simplified the Utah offense in order to stop his players from over-thinking the game.
The new philosophy did the Utes no good in a Wednesday trip to Pullman, WA which ended with a 10 point loss to Washington State. With 17 turnovers in the contest, Utah never had a chance, which had Krystkowiak disappointed about the regression, but still somewhat hopeful about his new offensive game-plan.
"We never really got a chance to see if it worked at Washington State, because we couldn't get over the turnovers. Seventeen turnovers is, for us, insurmountable," Krystkowiak said after Thursday's practice in Salt Lake City. "They got 28 points off of turnovers, which changes the pace and the tempo and really, the entire game-plan. So we're not going away from what we talked about doing offensively earlier in the week."
That persistence, and insistence on the newly simplified offense paid off in spades Saturday in the Emerald City, as the Utes kept their mistakes and mishaps to a minimum, committing just 10 turnovers, resulting in just nine Washington points off turnovers.
Utah's 74 points is the most it has ever scored in any Pac-12 game since joining the conference, and eclipsed its previous best of 51 percent shooting in a Pac-12 game, which happened 372 days ago in a three point loss to Stanford on 1/12/12.
Meanwhile, the usually finicky Utah defense returned to par Saturday, holding Washington star and Utah native C.J. Wilcox scoreless through the entire first half, and withstood his 14 point second half performance.
As a team, Washington shot just 37.3 percent after allowing both Washington State and USC to shoot 50 percent from the field, the best evidence of Utah's recent defensive regression.
Utah was out-rebounded Saturday night 36-29, but doled out a Pac-12 team-high of 18 assists versus Washington's 12.
Utah had a supporting cast of Jarred DuBois, Glen Dean and Cedric Martin, who all played key minutes, and contributed their seven, five and six points respectively, at critical moments. As Utah's defensive specialist, Cedric Martin's offense is simply icing on the cake for the Utes, who again benefitted from the senior's hustle and, indicative of his four rebounds, one assist, two blocks and two steals on the night.
Riding a high emotional wave, the Utes must manage the aftermath of Saturday's big win, and consistently produce the offensive efficiency and defensive intensity, or these types of wins will prove sparce throughout the rest of the season in a surprisingly strong Pac-12.
"Consistency, I think is probably the right word we're looking for. That would probably apply to us as a team, and probably just about to every player individually.That's the thing we're still working through, and we're trying to see who can start to step up for us every night," Krystkowiak agreed. "That's what we're missing right now, and we don't just need one guy, we need a few who can do it for us every night. So far we've had guys do it here and there, and it's time for us now to make that breakthrough."