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Brad Rock: Tournament exit doesn't keep Runnin' Utes from growing up

Published: Friday, March 15 2013 11:55 p.m. MDT

Utah's Jordan Loveridge celebrates with his teammates after scoring 15 points to assist the Utes in a victory over USC at the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday. (Chad Zavala, Daily Utah Chronicle) Utah's Jordan Loveridge celebrates with his teammates after scoring 15 points to assist the Utes in a victory over USC at the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday. (Chad Zavala, Daily Utah Chronicle)

So Utah's basketball season is over, finished, gone like a summer romance.

But missing out on a berth in Saturday's Pac-12 championship game doesn't really matter to the Utes, does it? They were there on a guest pass, anyway.

Try telling it to them.

In one of the more improbable scenarios in Utah's long (and recently tortured) history, the Utes made it to the semifinal game of the conference tournament before falling 64-45 to Oregon on Friday. The once-upon-a-time team somehow got its second wind in the previous 10 days, winning four straight conference games, the last two in the tournament. Friday the chances of beating Oregon were improbable, but the Utes had put on their Robert F. Kennedy goggles: "Some men see things as they are and ask why; I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."

Why not win the Pac-12 tournament? Three games in three days is one reason, but still, the Utes made their point several days ago: They're no longer a joke. Say what you will about their 15-18 season, but there isn't an honest coach who isn't privately giving them a slow clap.

Utah's Jordan Loveridge drives to the hoop against Cal's Robert Thurman during a Pac-12 tournament NCAA college basketball game on Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Las Vegas. (Chad Zavala, Chad Zavala - Daily Utah Chronicle) Utah's Jordan Loveridge drives to the hoop against Cal's Robert Thurman during a Pac-12 tournament NCAA college basketball game on Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Las Vegas. (Chad Zavala, Chad Zavala - Daily Utah Chronicle)

Even in losing badly to Oregon, they couldn't have felt too bad about how the season closed.

For Utah fans, this week was found money. After a mostly torturous decade of basketball, suddenly their team wasn't the worst in the hemisphere. For a few days it was downright respectable.

Meanwhile, there's no denying the experience the Utes got from winning in the postseason. Next up: Keeping the memory alive. If they do, a turnaround could happen surprisingly fast. BYU went from 1-25 in 1996-97 to the NCAA tournament in 2000-01. Utah State went from 4-23 in 1981-82 to 20-9 and the NCAA tournament the next season.

Utah expects to have back such key players as Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Jeremy Olsen, all of which have grown rapidly in coach Larry Krystkowiak's system.

So the run is done for the team announcers were calling "Cinderella." Last time that phrase was tied to the Utes, they also were in the Final Four. Never mind the 1998 team was in the real Final Four, not just in the Pac-12's. Nobody's complaining.

Truthfully, Utah's sudden four-game surge wasn't the biggest deal on the planet. Unassuming teams catch fire. That's why they call it March Madness. To call Utah's mini-streak unbelievable is stretching things. Going to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament … now that would be unbelievable.

Still, "unexpected" isn't out of line. Nor is "surprising" or "intriguing."

Vegas wouldn't have bet on them.

As for the Friday's game, it all caught up to the Utes in the first half. They looked like their old selves, failing to grab a single offensive rebound and getting doubled in rebounding overall. They got pushed around and pushed aside. Oregon moved its lead to 19 early in the second half, but still the Utes kept coming. They had it down to eight with 9:29 to go.

Though they fell short, at the end of the season the Utes had grown up before their own eyes. Jason Washburn, heretofore known as a nondescript 6-10 player, worked the last few games like a mini-Tim Duncan. Then there was Jarred DuBois. On Thursday he got hurt and left the game, yet came back to lead the Utes to a win over USC. The next night he did even more damage, making a game-tying 3-pointer against Cal. His teammates took it from there.

Freshman Loveridge is already a player to contend with in the Pac-12.

Winning one conference game was a bonus. But two?

That's why postseason games matter so much. Had the Utes not won in Las Vegas, their two wins last week would have been a positive little bump. Now they can say with reasonable confidence they have a future.

In some ways it's amazing the Utes didn't break down sooner. Aside from playing three games in three days, it was in Las Vegas. The place can wear on teams, especially those that play the first night. That's a long time to look at neon. Coach Krystkowiak acknowledged as much, telling the players to get plenty of rest and not to let the town get to them.

Even the popular buffets can start tasting like confetti after time, which prompted Krystkowiak to tell his team he "might buy you a nice meal" after the Thursday win.

There are only so many kinds of potato salad a team can eat.

And only so many rabbits it can pull out of a hat.

email: rock@desnews.com

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