For the second time this season, the Runnin' Utes have depended on the memory and spirit of former Ute coach Rick Majerus, pulling out a 58-55 win over a rolling Colorado team Saturday afternoon. With the much-needed win following a 31 point home blow-out loss to Stanford less than one week ago, Utah improved to 10-11, 2-7 on the season.
The University of Utah honored Majerus Saturday by retiring his signature white sweater in the rafter next to names like Andrew Bogut, Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller. Several of those big names and former Utes hailing from the glory years were in attendance, along with Coach Majerus' family.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak and his team have a healthy respect for what Majerus and his teams were able to accomplish in their time together, and are extremely mindful of the tradition of basketball excellence that Utah has enjoyed in the past.
To the man, these Utes feel a pressure to perform that is probably not fair, given the circumstances of where this program is versus the more established, and in most cases, more talented Pac-12 programs.
The emotion that accompanies these kinds of games, and Utah's ability to play well under those circumstances only reinforces the fact that this game is mental, and indeed, most of Utah's issues reside squarely between 30 sets of ears on the Utah roster.
While the Utes led in the contest by as much as 22 points with 12:28 remaining in the second half, only to score their last field goal at the 10:44 mark, allowing a 23-5 Colorado run that would find the Utes with just a one point lead as late as the 1:20 mark.
"I wish it would have been a little prettier at the end, but we will take it," Krystkowiak acknowledged his team's ugly win.
During the scoring drought, Utah backed away from the strategy that built the original lead, going conservative on offense, and inexplicably going away from post players Jason Washburn and Jeremy Olsen who finished with 13 points and 12 points, respectively.
"I just went in there and played hard and found some gaps in the defense. The guard did a good job of getting me the ball on the block," Olsen said humbly. "Coach also did a good job of calling some plays for me, and I was able to finish."
Olsen did most of his work in the first half, scoring eight of his 12 points in just 10 minutes of play, providing much of Utah's offensive punch in the first twenty minutes. With no fouls through the entire contest, Olsen would only play for four minutes in the second half to finish with 14 total minutes, much to the chagrin and confusion of everyone in the building, except Olsen himself.
"I support whatever Coach [Krystkowiak] says. I just play as hard as I can when I get in there, and Washburn was doing well. It wasn't the fact that I wasn't in there that they came back," Olsen backed up his coach. "It was that we were being complacent and we stopped attacking. That's the reason they got back in the game."
Post-game, Krystkowiak provided some of the reasoning behind the decision to limit the freshman's second half minutes.
"It was more of a defensive mind-set for us going down the stretch. We were switching and trying to keep people in front of them, defensively, and Jeremy does a lot of things, but it's hard for him to guard some perimeter players on the bounce," explained Krystkowiak. "That's kind of what we were thinking, getting more of a veteran group out there, and some guys who could guard. If you look at the numbers, it would have made a lot of sense, but it was hard for us to get the ball inside down that stretch, as much as we wanted to."
Olsen's performance was a huge positive for the Utah offense Saturday with freshman starter and leading scorer Jordan Loveridge out of the game. Loveridge averages 12.1 points per game, and Olsen matched that production for a career-high. A consistent scorer at the high school level, Olsen had shown some productivity on the boards and with hustle plays, but had not yet shown any real ability to score prior to Saturday.
"Our guys focused today, and with some of our starters out of the line-up right now I thought our guys stepped up and covered the bases for those guys that are missing, and made some big plays," praised a relieved Krystkowiak. "Jeremy Olsen, I thought was big for us in the post."
As Olsen and guard Cedric Martin carried the Utes offensively with eight points each in the first half, Washburn came on in the second with nine points and seven rebounds in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Utah took a 31-25 lead into halftime, mostly on the strength of a return to good defense, as Utah held Colorado without a field goal for over 10 minutes stretching over the end of the first half, and extending into the second half.
Utah's good first half can also be attributed to just two turnovers, a dramatic turnaround in ball security for a team that has been plagued with ghastly giveaways all season long. Returning to form in the second half, Utah would commit eight turnovers, including a particularly troubling stretch where the Utes committed five in a row, which effectively jump-started the Colorado run.
In addition to late game turnovers, the Utes' tack around the 4:00 mark was to go small with their lineup, putting 6-foot-4 guard Cedric Martin at the four spot. What ensued only served to heighten Utah's struggles and nearly cost them the game.
"We were smaller, trying to spread the floor out and what we talked was running Motion 5 and having [Washburn] patrol the paint. We wanted drive-close-outs, and [Colorado] was holding, and grabbing," Krystkowiak justified his decision. "If you don't dribble [the officials] are never going to call [fouls], so we were double-teamed and we just didn't get it accomplished the way we wanted. We didn't have the post threat, but overall I thought we spread the floor."
Krystkowiak would not come out and say that his team got the wrong end of the officiating late in the game, but would elude to some close calls that went Colorado's game that changed the course late in the game. Colorado got the benefit of two buckets that counted and got the plus-one off of Utah fouls, but converted just one of the free throws. One such play brought the Buffaloes within one point of the Utes with :56 remaining.
"I thought we took a couple of charges, in my mind, at the end that ended up being three-point plays," said Krystkowiak.
Utah showed more panic than poise down the stretch, and Colorado's errors and mishaps should be credited for Utah's win, but freshman Brandon Taylor made perhaps the biggest play of the game. With :12 seconds remaining and a one point Utah lead, Taylor played smothering defense on Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie, forcing a key turnover, effectively ending any chance Colorado had to retake the lead - provided that Utah would hit its free throws.
On the average Utah shoots .748 from the free throw line, and has been an above average shooting team from the line. Of late, however, the Utes have declined in that category and had a poor free throw shooting performance in practice leading up to the showdown with Colorado.
After a Colorado foul with :07 seconds, and Utah still holding a one point edge, junior Glen Dean nailed his two free throws, giving Utah a 58-55 lead. Inside the final 1:20 of the game, Utah went 4-4 from the free throw line, including two from senior Jarred DuBois, who finished with 10 points on the night.
With still plenty of concerns and issues yet to work out, Utah still has plenty of work to do and improvements to make. However, for a day, Utah will take the win, enjoy it over Sunday and come back ready to work on Monday.
"[The win] feels good, there's no doubt it. Still I'm going to go take a good look at myself in the mirror, and we need to start working on some of these close game situations," admitted Krystkowiak. "I feel really happy for our kids in the locker room. They've been busting their tails and haven't caught a break in a while."