LAS VEGAS — Although it ended with a 64-45 loss to Oregon in the semifinals, Utah’s extended stay in the Pac-12 Tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena was appreciated experience. Before facing the Ducks, the 10th-seeded Utes upset USC (69-66) and California (79-69 in overtime).
“It was great. It was really enjoyable to wake up in the morning and know that you had another challenge ahead of you,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It’s unfortunate, obviously, the way that it ended. But hopefully it just gave us a little feel of what some success is like.”
Krystkowiak is optimistic the Utes can build upon the experience and use it as motivation in the offseason.
The tournament success upped Utah’s win total to 15, the program’s highest number of victories in a season since 2008-09. The Utes wound up just two Pac-12 tourney wins away from going 17-17 overall and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“We played well as a team," said guard Jarred DuBois, who transferred to Utah for one season after graduating early from Loyola Marymount. "I wouldn’t want to be a part of anything different. I’m glad we were able to get as far as we got. I think you’ll see these guys continue to grow. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll see this program is at this level. It was a surprise to people this year, but I won’t be surprised if they’re back in this situation again next year.”
DuBois noted that the Utes defeated two tough teams in the tournament before running into an Oregon squad that was just better and played harder.
Utah managed just 15 points in the first half against the Ducks.
“They are a really good defensive team. We could have used a couple of days of practice to simulate some of that pressure,” Krystkowiak said. “Without an opportunity to do that, I think it kind of felt like we all got punched in the face a little bit. We didn’t respond properly.”
A renewed focus in the second half pleased Krystkowiak, but it wasn’t enough to keep Oregon from outscoring Utah 35-30 after the break.
“They were a superior team tonight,” he said. “I give them all the credit. It’s not us. Let’s be realistic with this. The reason that they’ve won 25 games is because they’re a really good team and they’ve got a lot of weapons — at every position right down the line.”
Even so, Krystkowiak thought the Utes’ defense was fantastic. They held the Ducks to just 29 points in the first half. Utah’s main problems were on offense, where Oregon limited them to 29.4 percent shooting from the field.
“A lot of credit goes to them, really, more than what we didn’t do,” Krystkowiak said. “I don’t believe we ran out of gas. I just believe that they took us out of what we wanted to do.”
That, simply put, led to Utah’s ouster from the tournament. It also gave the Utes a good idea of what it’ll take to reach the semifinals and beyond in the future,
“In order to get back we’ve got to put a tremendous amount of work in,” said Krystkowiak, who praised this year’s team for putting in the time and for caring as much as the coach does.
“I’ve been around a bunch of different teams as a player and a coach," he said. "I had one team in the CBA when we lost the championship that was a really special group. This group is right there with them.”
Senior center Jason Washburn noted that the team has to be pleased with who it is and what was accomplished.
“I don’t think there’s a soul alive who thought we would make it to the semifinals of the conference tournament, or that we would even finish 10th,” Washburn said with tears in his eyes. “In that regard, we can be proud.”
Washburn, though, wasn’t completely happy. He was hoping for a winning record in his final season with the Utes.
“All I ever wanted was to win and I’m just sorry I couldn’t make that happen for my teammates,” said Washburn, who admitted that prevailing in a couple of tournament games definitely had him riding on “Cloud Nine” a little bit.
Closing out his Utah career, however, was difficult.
“It just hit me as I walked off that court for the last time. You always dread that moment, I think, when you walk off the court for the last time,” Washburn said. “Our fans gave me the greatest honor that I could ever receive from them. They stood up and they clapped. The student section told me that it was all right and I’ll never forget that moment.”
There were mixed emotions in the Utah locker room after the loss to Oregon — a combination of sadness and optimism. The latter, primarily, was voiced by freshman point guard Brandon Taylor. He said the Utes deserved to reach the semifinals because they put in the work and gave it their all.
“We ended the season on a good note. We are going to come back harder than ever,” Taylor said. “It requires a lot of dedication, hard work and getting in the gym every day and committing to getting better. We’re coming — University of Utah basketball — we’re coming.”