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February 26, 2012Utah improved its record to 6-22, (3-13 in conference) Saturday in a nail-biting victory against visiting Stanford. The visiting Cardinal were looking for their twentieth win of the season, and hoped to cement a winning conference record with a win over Utah.
It wasn't to be, however, for the Cardinal who were fresh off a surprising victory over Colorado in Boulder last Thursday. The rare Utah win left an ecstatic Larry Krystkowiak speechless, as he hoped to "erase what we've experienced here lately, and put an exclamation point on our home season."
He got his wish.
"I just walked in [the locker room] for maybe the first time all year and had nothing to say. I was speechless," he revealed. "I've walked in there so many times with heads down and that kind of vibe, that I just wanted to to say nothing and feel the vibe that was in the room tonight. I just wanted to enjoy the feeling."
Utah started off rocky, turning the ball over seven times in the first half alone, just after giving the ball up 18 times in a home loss to Cal last Thursday. Utah struggled once again with ball security Saturday with 16 turnovers in the game.
"We got off to a really slow start, and the resilient word keeps popping into my head, and we just kept battling," said Krystkowiak. "It was really solid defense, short of some rebounding woes, but we did as nice a job defensively as I think we've done all year. Then we made some big shots when we needed to make them. It was great."
No shot, perhaps, was bigger than the three pointer Chris Hines with :27 seconds remaining in the contest, with the Utes trailing Stanford 55-56. Hines' shot proved to be the Utes' final points of the contest, and put them up 58-56.
"Cedric [Martin] had some pressure on him, and the whole flow was kind of going to the right side, and I saw Cedric coming back to the left side," explained Hines of his game-winning shot. "My man sucked in just a tad bit, and I got a little bit of room and a nice look."
Three pointers were the story of the game for Utah, surprisingly over-shadowing the 16 Utah turnovers. Utah shot 7-12 (58.3%) from the three-point line, including a career-high performance by Hines, who made five three pointers in the game to finish with a game-high 19 points to go with a career-high seven rebounds.
Utah center [/db]Jason Washburn[/db] also had a big game, chipping in 17 points, five rebounds, three steals and six blocks for one of his best all around outings of the season.
"He is a terrific player. I have been watching him on tape throughout the year," praised Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. "He's a quality player. I think he's one of the best players in our conference."
With the game very much in doubt with five seconds remaining in the contest and Utah desperately hanging on to a one point lead, Washburn was fouled and put on the line for the front end of a one-on-one which might have iced the game for the Utes.
Washburn missed, and Stanford pulled the rebound down, but ultimately could not convert. As a result, Washburn could good-heartedly talk about the miss, certainly knowing how costly the miss could have been had the Utes lost.
"I'm the leading free throw shooter on the team, so I walked up there trying to tell myself that this was just any other free throw. I walked up there with confidence," Washburn said. "If [we had lost], I imagined myself having to shoot 10,000 free throws next week in practice."
Utah was down in the first half by as many as 10 points, but went on a 17-6 run midway through the first half. The Ute run was sparked by the play of junior guard Chris Hines, who hit two three pointers and scored eight points and pulled down three rebounds.
Center Jason Washburn blocked two shots, grabbed two rebounds, had one steal and hit a three pointer, during the eight minute stretch. Combined, Hines and Washburn accounted for thirteen of the Utes' 17 points during the run.
"[Hines and Washburn] have been really good. They're providing some really solid leadership," said Krystkowiak of his team leaders. "They're playing a lot of minutes, through some injuries, and they're getting better. They're leading by example, and they're coach-able. It's a pretty good story for those guys."
Utah, who had struggled with getting to the free throw line of late, attempted 16 free throws in the first half, converting 14 for an 87.5 percentage for the half. In its last two games combined, Utah had attempted just 13 free throws, wherein head coach Larry Krystkowiak observed that his team hadn't played aggressively enough in each of those two contests to warrant getting to the line.
If that was the case, Saturday was a complete departure, as the Utes continued to drive the ball, resulting in frequent trips to the charity stripe, where they certainly made their living, garnering 21 attempts and converting 17 for an 81 percentage on the night.
Midway through the second half, Utah finally relinquished it's lead, but the contest remained tight, with neither team going up by more than two points in the second half, and a game that netted 10 ties overall.
Typically, Utah has found itself on the losing end of closer games, including the first contest against Stanford in Palo Alto as the Cardinal defeated Utah 68-65.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak points to Saturday's rare, close victory as evidence of his team's continual improvement, though the focus, according to him, has never been on the number of wins or losses.
"It sounds crazy for a coach to be talking about, but you don't always have to be winning games to be winning, and learning and being successful. It's fun to come to practice and no one's ever talked about the number of games we've lost," explained Krystkowiak. "They're a bunch of grinders, and the credit goes to [the players]. They're warriors."
Washburn also agreed that Saturday's win is a sure sign of Utah's progress.
"Our team showed a lot of resiliency. Winning close games is a learning process. It takes a lot of poise, and it takes a lot of focus," offered Washburn. "We executed, we got stops, and the outcome was what it was."
In addition to Washburn and Hines, juco transfer Dijon Farr also scored in double figures with 12 points and six rebounds.
Ever-present in the minds of Ute players and coaches alike are the fans who have supported the team throughout the season. Both Krystkowiak and Hines addressed the home crowd in post-game interviews with genuine thanks, with Hines going so far as to credit Ute fans with the win Saturday night.
"It takes a special fan to come out and support us at this point. That's the reality of it. I haven't had some of my best friends come to town and support us, or relatives. That's one of those things where you look up and see those fans that are hanging in there, and that means a lot to me, and a lot to our guys have that base show up," praised Krystkowiak. "[The win] is just more of a thank you for just supporting us. For us, it's just pretty neat that they've hung with us through this."
Hines added his thoughts.
"My biggest thing was the fans. They've been here [though] we've been losing a lot of games, and they've been here," Hines said. "I really wanted to have this one for the fans, and they were here. To get this win, I think they really helped us."
Utah heads to the Northwest next week to take on Oregon State and Oregon to close out the regular season.