LAS VEGAS — Utah hit the Pac-12 Tournament jackpot Wednesday night, winning its first conference tournament game since 2009 with a dramatic 69-66 victory over USC at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The 10th-seeded Utes will face No. 2 seed California in the quarterfinals on Friday (Pac-12 Network, 7 p.m.). They’ll do so on the heels of an emotional triumph. A 13-point lead evaporated to one down the stretch before the outcome was finally sealed.
“It was a great effort, I thought, by our guys coming out of the gate,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “(We) managed to build ourselves a couple of double-digit leads and got away from playing the way we were playing a little bit.”
In the end, though, Krystkowiak acknowledged that he was proud of his team for pulling it out.
“We’re thrilled to be moving on,” he said.
Jarred DuBois, who finished with a game-high 22 points, scored five straight points for Utah after USC had rallied to make it 60-59 with just under four minutes to play. He also assisted on a dunk by Jason Washburn that followed as the Utes held on with nine points in the closing minutes. Glen Dean added a pair of free throws.
The latter, however, didn’t cap all scoring in the contest. USC’s J.T. Terrell hit a long 3-pointer in the final minute and Eric Wise pulled down a rebound with eight seconds remaining to give the Trojans a chance to even the score. The ensuing outlet pass led to a wild scramble for the ball as time expired.
The win gave Utah its first three-game Pac-12 winning streak and raised the total number of teams the Utes have beaten in the conference to eight since joining the league last season.
“This team is really starting to understand what we need to do to win basketball games against good, solid teams here in the Pac-12,” said Washburn, who finished with 10 points.
Freshman Jordan Loveridge joined DuBois and Washburn in double figures with 15 points. He also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
Omar Oraby topped USC with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The 7-foot-2 center carried a big load inside with fellow 7-footers Dewayne Dedmon and James Blasczyk suspended for violating team rules. His defensive presence was also felt as Washburn was limited to 3-of-14 shooting from the field.
“It’s always hard playing shorthanded and missing some key players off the team,” Oraby said. “But I had to step up, and I had to step in and do the best I can.”
In the end, though, Oraby acknowledged the Trojans came up short.
USC coach Bob Cantu credited the Utes for playing good defense and for connecting on 18-of-21 free throws. The Trojans went to the line nine times, making seven.
“I thought Utah played really well tonight,” Cantu said. “They really caught us off-guard with their switching of (defenses).”
Utah led 35-28 at halftime. The game opened with five ties and one lead change before the Utes pulled ahead for good on a basket and two free throws by Washburn. The scores sparked a 15-6 run that put them ahead by nine points with just over eight minutes left to play in the half.
USC managed to cut the deficit to 29-24 a few minutes later, but Utah responded with a 3-pointer by Brandon Taylor and a layup from Jeremy Olsen to thwart the comeback bid.
Washburn and DuBois topped the Utes with eight and seven points, respectively, in the opening half. Loveridge had five rebounds.
The successful start allowed Utah to hold onto the lead for the final 33:07 of play.
DuBois noted that the Utes are a different team as of late.
“We take pride in moving forward and improving each day,” he said. “So we’re just going to try to come out, rebound, defend, take good shots and see what happens from there.”
From Cantu’s perspective, Utah’s future looks bright.
“They’re playing good basketball right now,” he said. “They’ve won three in a row, and I could see them winning a couple of more.”
The next chance to do so, however, won’t be easy. The Utes take on a California squad that has beaten them twice this season — 62-57 in Salt Lake City and 64-46 in Berkeley.
“We’ve kind of addressed what we did wrong,” Krystkowiak said. “Hopefully we can address some of those things and be more competitive on the next opportunity.”
Washburn said that it’ll be a a big challenge.
“We’re going up against a tough defensive team with arguably the best player in our conference (Allen Crabbe),” he said. “We’re going to have to be even better than we were tonight and we’ll have to take the fight to them.”
At 14-17 overall, the Utes now have eight more wins than a year ago when Krytskowiak and his staff were hired to rebuild the program.