SALT LAKE CITY — Break up the Utes!
After losing eight straight games and looking like they might not win another game all year, the Utah basketball has suddenly won two in a row after defeating the University of Portland 72-67 Monday night at the Huntsman Center.
The Utes came out quickly and never trailed while improving to 3-8 on the season against the Pilots of the West Coast Conference, who dropped to 3-9 on the year.
Josh Watkins bounced back from a 1-for-9 shooting night against Idaho State to score a career-high 26 points, while dishing out six assists. Meanwhile, Jason Washburn had another strong game with 18 points and seven rebounds and also came up with three big defensive plays in the final two minutes, taking a charge and blocking two shots.
Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak was thrilled to pick up another victory, but was concerned that his team nearly let one slip away after a tremendous first half when his team led by as many as 16.
"It was a tale of two different games," he said. "We came out and did a terrific job of moving the basketball in the first half and defending and making some stops. When we play some defense the rim seems to get bigger at the other end."
However, things didn't go as well for the Utes in the second half as Portland clawed back to tie the game, before the Utes pulled out the victory.
"To be honest, we got into some uncharted territory at halftime with the comfortable lead and got fat and sassy," Krystkowiak said. "That's part of the learning experience that we haven't crossed yet."
Early on, the Utes looked nothing like the same team that lost back-to-back games by 30 points to Fresno State and Cal State-Fullerton earlier this month. They raced to leads of 9-1, 15-3 and 30-14 before settling for a 39-27 halftime lead.
"The first five minutes we came out and punched them in the mouth," said Watkins.
The Pilots stormed back in the second half as the Utes started firing up shots they hadn't tried all season, according to Krystkowiak, and didn't play with the same defensive intensity.
With 7:54 left, the Pilots tied the score at 55 on a basket by Tim Douglas and they had two chances to take their first lead of the night. However, Thomas van der Mars missed four straight foul shots and when Watkins scored on a drive with 5:30 left, the Utes were ahead for good.
In the final minute, the Utes sank 9 of 12 free throws to stave off the Pilots, who kept it close thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Nemanja Mitrovic, who led the Pilots with 14 points, in the final 20 seconds.
"It was a test of character," said Washburn. "They tied it up, but we held them back and we stood firm. I'm proud of our guys."
"We showed toughness," added Watkins. "Early in the season we might have folded, but we kept our heads held high and came out with the win."
Krystkowiak agreed that the Utes of a couple of weeks ago might not have been able to hang on for the victory after losing a big lead.
"It's a great feeling to be able to learn some lessons and not deal with a loss," he said. "It would have been kind of catastrophic if things hadn't gone the way they did tonight (at the end). It would have been really hard to deal with."
Portland coach Eric Reveno said his team did a good job of making adjustments in the second half, but the first half hurt his team.
"I give Utah a lot of credit for being prepared and guys hitting shots and making plays," he said. "We were the opposite, back on our heels and being disrupted."
The Utes play one more game, Thursday night at Weber State, before starting Pac-12 play on Dec. 31 in Boulder against Colorado.
UTE NOTES: Ute redshirt guard Glen Dean, who had a brain operation last week, was discharged from the hospital Sunday and is "doing well" according to Ute officials . . . Eric Jackson, a Portland assistant coach since 2006, was an assistant at Utah under coach Rick Majerus from 2002-04 . . . Last year in Portland, the Pilots beat the Utes 88-79 in the only other game between the two schools.
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