SALT LAKE CITY — The laughter has subsided regarding the Utah basketball team. The one-liners about playing a high school schedule now seem as dusty as a Cosby monologue.
It’s true the Utes mangled the game’s last play, and No. 10 Oregon took it from there, finishing with a breakaway dunk for a 70-68 overtime win at the Huntsman Center. Also true is that, just like last year, and the year before, the Utes are off to a losing start in the Pac-12 season.
At the same time, it was so much different. It was an almost-packed house, 13,426. In both regulation and overtime, Utah had the ball for a last shot. This much became obvious on Thursday night: Utah isn’t a team with which to trifle.
The Utes now have respect, which is ahead of schedule at this stage.
“We’re maybe a little bit ahead,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak of his team’s progression.
On the down side, it’s not incognito anymore.
“It wasn’t any surprise. Other teams are going to be, like, surprised. But it wasn’t a surprise to us,” said Utah forward Jordan Loveridge.
Loveridge’s thoughts on surprise are probably wishful thinking. It’s not like Oregon State isn’t noticing. Or UCLA. Or Arizona. After nearly upsetting the Ducks, the Utes are as subtle as a marching band. For most of the night they out-thought and outhustled the Ducks, and wanted it more.
Loveridge’s shot at the end of regulation bounded away. In overtime they had the ball for the closing seconds, but the pass went to center Dallin Bachynski instead of Loveridge or Delon Wright. Bachynski tried to pass out, but the ball was stolen by Damyean Dotson for a dunk.
Of eligible receivers on the play, Bachynski rated just behind the guy standing under the basket with a mop.
“One of those classic killer plays,” Krystkowiak said.
If the Utes had imagined this beforehand, it couldn’t have worked better for the first seven minutes. The Ducks introduced themselves with 1-for-13 shooting. But it wasn’t just poor shooting by Oregon; it was rabid defense by the Utes, who blocked six first-half shots, nine for the game.
It didn’t go unappreciated. Just like their dominating years, the crowd was roaring and the Utes were charging. Utah may have played an embarrassingly easy schedule in pre-conference, but its fans didn’t care. To a lot of people, 11-1 is 11-1.
Twelve-and-one would have been heaven.
Despite the fact Utah defiantly fashioned the weakest schedule possible (rated lowest in the nation) to build confidence, it would be hard to dispute the result. Not only did Utah beat everyone it was supposed to, it beat one team it wasn’t — BYU.
Fresno State, Ball State and Boise State were the only other notable programs on the schedule, the only loss being a two-point defeat at Boise.
Everyone else got the bum’s rush.
Still, despite an almost perfect record going into Pac-12 play, you had to wonder about, for instance, Evergreen State. What, Broadleaf Technical College was unavailable? As for St. Katherine, the obvious question was how did Krystkowiak hear about it? Answer: former Ute Dave Reichner is an assistant for the Firebirds.
This is the first year of college basketball for St. Kat’s, and it showed. Utah beat the Firebirds by 73 points.
Utah scheduled some of this year’s games as they were coming off a six-win season. How were they supposed to know they’d be decent this quickly?
Yet in a way, Krystkowiak’s Tinker Toy schedule made sense. His team was injury-free on Thursday, having rarely been tested. Meanwhile, the Utes circumvented the rules by conducting far more practices than allowable by the NCAA. What else do you call games against Evergreen State, St. Katherine, Lamar and Grand Canyon?
“I love the vibe we’re getting in the community. I know the students are away. It's a top-10 team coming in and hopefully people are excited,” Krystkowiak said on Monday. “It will be a good basketball game ... I don't want to beg people to come but if you have time, come see one heck of a game on Thursday.”
Nostradamus couldn’t have said it better.
In any event, Thursday was the dawning of a new year and nearly a new day, so to speak. But Oregon came in undefeated and left that way.
“I feel good about our team,” Krystkowiak said afterward, “and hopefully we’ve had enough competition and we’ve won enough games to be competitive regardless of who we’re playing.”
There was no disagreement from either end of the court.
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