BERKELEY, Calif. — Suddenly the Utah basketball team is going into road games believing it might win, rather than just hoping to keep within 25 points of the opponent.
Heading into Thursday night's game at Stanford, the Utes had lost their previous seven games away from the Huntsman Center this year by an average of 26.6 points.
However, against a Stanford team that came into the game sporting the best overall record in the Pac-12, the Utes came within a whisker of forcing overtime and lost by just three points, 68-65.
It was a huge turnaround from 12 days earlier when the Utes were blown out by 40 points on the road against Colorado. The near-win gives the Utes some confidence heading into Saturday night's game against Cal
The Utes (4-12, 1-3) and Bears (14-4, 4-1) tip off at 8:30 p.m. MT at the Haas Pavilion (11,877 capacity).
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said his team was trying to focus on competing on the road because it hadn't done that all year. The Utes have had some decent stretches in games, but nothing like Thursday when they played hard right to the final second.
"The guys couldn't have played any harder," he said. "It came down to some little things — missed blockouts on free throws and missed free throws."
While the Utes shot well above their season average at 50.9 percent from the field, including 60.7 percent in the second half and 41.7 from 3-point range, they shot horribly from the free throw line at 1 for 9 and were outrebounded 34 to 22.
"We haven't had a lot of time to talk about the little things because it's been a big-picture situation," Krystkowiak said. "Now we've got some of the whole down and now we need to get back to some of the parts. Hopefully we'll continue to play this hard and then we can think about making free throws and blocking people out."
The Utes will be facing a Cal team that was one of the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12. The Bears are coached by Mike Montgomery, who was a longtime coach at Stanford, and who also coached Krystkowiak for four years at Montana in the early 1980s.
Allen Crabbe leads the Bears with a 16.1 scoring average, including 47.2 percent from 3-point range. Jorge Gutierrez is right behind him at 14.3 per game, but is coming off a 5-point, 2-of-17 shooting performance against Colorado Thursday night.
Other expected Cal starters are Justin Cobbs (12.8 ppg), Harper Kamp (9.1 ppg), and David Kravish (5.9 ppg). Brandon Smith, a junior guard who has started 11 games, has missed the last two Cal games because of a concussion and is questionable for the Utah game.
Following tonight's game, the Utes return home for a pair of games against Arizona Thursday night and Arizona State Saturday afternoon.
GAME NOTES: Cal leads the series with Utah 9-8 and won the last game between the two school in 2008 with a 72-69 victory. However, the Utes won the year before at Cal with a 67-65 victory on a last-second shot by Shaun Green . . . Josh Watkins leads the Utes with a 15.7 scoring average and with 4.6 assists per game . . . Junior guard Chris Hines is coming off his career-best scoring game of 21 points and now averages 7.9 points per game . . . Starting forward Dijon Farr, who made both 3-pointers at Stanford, is now 8 for 16 from 3-point range on the season . . . Cal will play in Salt Lake on Feb. 25.