Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY – It wasn't 1961, 1966, 1998, or anything resembling the years when Utah was a Final Four team. Just another Saturday in the rebuilding era of Ute basketball; a solitary game in one unforgiving season.
But in an odd way, it was also March Madness Lite: A clutch 3-point basket, a flurry for the ball on the other end, and an excruciating wait for the final five seconds to expire.
In a season of small victories and big defeats, the Utes closed out their home season with a 58-57 win over Stanford on Saturday.
"I've been talking so much about moral victories," coach Larry Krystkowiak said to a small group of reporters. "I wouldn't have had anything to say to you guys if we'd lost."
The win allowed Utah to avoid recording the fewest home wins since 1946. They are 6-22 overall, 6-9 at home.
"I know it's not good to say to you (media) guys that I'm speechless," Krystkowiak said, "but it was tremendous."
That's how it goes on rebuilding years. All wins are tremendous, if not stupendous. But a last-second, hang-on-for-your-life finish?
There have been years when Utah won fewer at home, such as the three-year run in the 1920s when they claimed just a game or two. But back then they played only 8-11 games total, five or six at home.
For all intents and purposes, this season has been nuclear winter for Utah basketball. In the Huntsman Center, thousands of seats sit empty.
Many thought Utah would struggle by upgrading to the Pac-12, but the truth is the Utes would have been bad in the Mountain West, too. Crushed by the double-whammy of mass defections, dismissals, coaching changes and a lack of talent, they don't resemble the program that was once considered among the dozen best in NCAA history.
Exactly how bad the Utes are depends on perspective. Certainly the talent and size levels are low. At the same time, if this season has shown its fans anything, it's that Krystkowiak can get his players to work hard. Making that happen in a five-win season is like pushing hippos. But he has managed.. He said after Saturday's game neither he nor his players have talked about the low win totals at practice or in the locker room.
"They're just a bunch of grinders," Kyrstkowiak said. "A bunch of Warriors."
When the Utes fell behind by 10 in the first half, they seemed destined to end up where they have all season: on the short end of a big stick. But Stanford knew something was up when Utah's solitary big man, 6-foot-10 Jason Washburn, nailed a first-half 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.
At halftime Utah trotted out some 30 fans to honor them for attending every home game this season. Considering some of Utah's home losses (14 to Cal, 19 to BYU, 31 to Cal-Fullerton), it's debatable whether the Utes themselves attended every game.
And though the arena was less than half full, the truth is that the rest of the Pac-12 (excepting Arizona) isn't drawing mosquitoes, either. Utah is actually fourth in the conference in home attendance.
"It takes a special fan to come out to support us at this point," Krystkowiak said.
Thus the reward came when Chris Hines put the Utes ahead with a corner basket with 26 seconds left and Stanford's Chasson Randle's 22-footer was off at the buzzer. The band played with jubilation, the sparse crowd roared, the players hugged, the coach sighed.
Twenty-eight games and not much to show.
Yet somehow it felt important just the same.
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