Unexpectedly, Utah owns the Pac-12's longest win streak with its third consecutive win, a 69-66 thriller over USC Wednesday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. With the win, Utah has made a new mark on a nearly empty Pac-12 slate, as Wednesday's win represents its first Pac-12 tournament win since joining the conference for the 2011-12 season.
From the opening tip, Utah looked to be in near total control, even though the Trojans hung around, and got as close as two points just before the midway point in the first half before Utah answered with a 12-2 run with 2:12 remaining.
After building their lead up to as much as 10, Utah went cold heading into the half having missed their final three shots, and hitting just one of two free throws down the stretch. USC hit a rough patch of its own during the same stretch, allowing Utah to hang on to a 35-28 halftime lead.
Heading into Wednesday's match-up with the Trojans, the story line was the suspension of USC starting center, Dewayne Dedmon, who had effectively shut down the Utah offense last time around.
Averaging just 6.7 points per game, Dedmon's absence shouldn't have been a significant factor, however, in addition to limiting the Utah offense, Dedmon also scored 13 points and pulled down as many rebounds and swatted five blocks. Dedmon's all-around production against Utah seemed almost impossible to replace, but his 7-foot-2 Egyptian teammate Oram Oraby filled in nicely.
Oraby finished the night with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and held Utah center Jason Washburn to just under his 11.8 season average and just five rebounds on the night.
Post-game USC head coach discussed the fact that limiting Washburn was a focus coming into the game, which meant that he wasn't able to account for everyone.
"I thought Omar [Oraby] did a great job on Washburn, and we wanted to try to get him to shoot over the top of him and use his length, at 7-foot-2. Obviously, we had a difficult time with DuBois driving to the basket," Cantu said. "He's so crafty, he can get to the rim and he's great in the open court. He's obviously a very, very good player, and he showed that tonight. Our goal coming into tonight was to limit them both, and we did a good job on Washburn."
While USC did shut Washburn out, he correctly pointed out that Ute senior Jarred DuBois could not be contained. - namely Utah senior guard Jarred DuBois, who lit the Trojans up for 22 points, 15 of which he scored in the second half. Five of his 15 points came in the last 3:13 in the game, when USC had cut the Utah lead to 60-59.
"I was just trying to make plays. I think it's important as a senior to try and do whatever you can to try and win. I don't think early in the season that I did a good job of that," DuBois said of his virtual late-game takeover. "So I've tried to do a better job of either getting a rebound, a stop or a charge, or tonight it was make a big play by scoring and getting open."
Oraby effectively carried USC in the first half with 10 of his 18 points, while the rest of USC's starters went 4-19 from the field, scoring just 12 points among them.
"It was Utah's defense, they did a great job of keying in on our key players. They had a great game plan, and we didn't get as many great looks as I would have liked," USC coach said when asked if nerves affected his key contributors. "A lot of our shots were contested, and you've got to give [Utah] credit for defending them."
In a see-saw game where each team made runs at various times, Utah was able to answer every USC run, something it hasn't been able to do through most of the season.
"We managed to build a couple of double-digit leads and got away from playing the way we wanted to play for a little bit," said Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak. "But I was really proud of our guys, and they've grown this season. Earlier in the season, these were the kind of games that withered away, and we had a hard time closing. I thought we had some guys make some big time plays, and so we're thrilled to be moving on."
Utah has made significant improvements in key areas, once again turnovers to just six on the night; effectively resolving a problem area that has hounded it all season long. Though Utah was out-rebounded 39-34 Wednesday, it was improvement over the -10 margin against USC last time out.
Through the various Utah runs, different players contributed at different, critical moments of the game. For Utah, it was freshman forward Jordan Loveridge who provided some offensive punch in the middle of the second half, when USC began a run of its own. Loveridge's timely scoring down that stretch allowed the Utes to hold on to their lead, and the Utah native would finish with 15 points and had a team-high 9 rebounds.
Utah had three players in double-digits, and counted on role players to add punch at critical times. Dakari Tucker finished with six points, hitting two three-pointers in the second half to help keep the Utes' lead. Brandon Taylor quietly added seven points and handed out three assists and forward Jeremy Olsen added four points.
Junior guard Glen Dean scored five points in limited minutes, including Utah's final two points of the game - two free throws which pulled Utah up 69-63 with :48 remaining just as USC made another run to cut the Utah lead to 67-63 with :50 left in the game.
In a tight game, Utah needed every single contribution and pointed, and would not be picky about where those points came from.
Utah improved to 14-17, 5-13 on the season, and have now won as many Pac-12 conference games over the last six days (3) as it did over the entire 2011-12 season.
"I think we're a different team now than we were even two days ago. We take pride in moving forward, and improving each day," DuBois said. "So we're just going to come out and rebound, play defense, take good shots and see what happens from there."
Utah now faces No. 2 seed Cal, who defeated Utah in both meetings this season. Utah played Cal close the first time around, ultimately losing 62-57, but took a 64-46 beating by Cal in late February.