SALT LAKE CITY — Although it's been a tough season for the Utah basketball team, at least the coaches are keeping a sense of humor.

During Monday night's game, after Portland had come back from a 16-point first-half deficit to tie the score with just under eight minutes to go, the Ute staff was able laugh about how bad their team has been so far this year.

"We were joking amongst our coaching staff when the score was tied and somebody said a month ago if the score was tied, we wouldn't be able to win this game," head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "One of our other coaches quipped, 'Well, a month ago we wouldn't have even been close to being tied.' "

Krystkowiak acknowledged that the schedule has been kinder to the Utes with a pair of struggling teams coming to town in Idaho State and Portland. But still, there has been a dramatic improvement by the young Ute squad in the past 10 days.

The main thing has been the effort the team has put forth since the embarrassing 31-point home loss to Cal State Fullerton. Krystkowiak said playing hard is a skill just like shooting and his team is getting more confident in playing hard.

"We weren't sure some guys knew how to play hard," Krystkowiak said. "We challenged them and then they get a taste of it and it's like 'Oh, I do have the skill.' Now they've tapped into it, so they understand what it feels like and we've been fairly consistent for a couple of weeks now."

BETTER SHOOTING: Something else the Utes have been doing better is passing the ball, which is resulting in more wide-open shots and more made baskets.

In the two wins over Idaho State and Portland, the Utes had 18 and 14 assists, respectively — their two highest numbers of the season — and shot 48.9 and 50 percent from the field, respectively.

"We're moving the ball really well and everybody's willing to make the extra pass," Krystkowiak said. "It's a fun way to play basketball, if you pass it around and take open shots. We can live with them if they don't go in, but recently they've been going in."

UTE NOTES: Utah plays Weber State on Thursday night (7 p.m.) in Ogden . ... Utah leads the series with Weber State 26-13 and has won nine of the last 10 in the series. The Wildcats' only victory since 2001 came two years ago in Ogden when they came back from a 14-point first-half deficit to win 83-76. ... After his 26-point performance against Portland, Josh Watkins is now second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 16.7 points per game and is also second in assists at 5.3 per game. ... Jason Washburn is fourth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at 60.3 percent and is tied for sixth in rebounding at 7.0 per game. ... The Utes open Pac-12 play on Dec. 31 at Colorado and play their first Pac-12 home game Jan. 5 against Washington State.

U. women face NMSU

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women's basketball team is set to take on New Mexico State in the Huntsman Center tonight at 7 p.m.

New Mexico State is just 2-8 on the season, winning its first game before losing eight straight. A handful of those losses were close, however, and the Aggies will surely put up a fight.

"New Mexico State has a new coach this season," Utah head coach Anthony Levrets said. "Coach (Mark) Trakh does a great job. He's a former head coach at Pepperdine and USC. They're running a new system to that group of kids. They do a good job with their motion stuff. It's going to be a challenge defending them, and they play incredibly hard."

The Utes won last year's meeting in Las Cruces, N.M., 72-62, and lead the all-time series 21-6.

—Jessica Wilde