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Utah Runnin' Utes defeat Cal to clinch 1st winning Pac-12 season

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah clinched its first winning Pac-12 season Sunday with a 76-61 victory over California in the Huntsman Center.

The 11th-ranked Utes, though, are taking it all in stride.

“It’s great. I think I’ve got a big bonus built into my contract. Let’s go party,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak joked before putting things in perspective.

“The guys have done a heck of a job. But we’re not interested in any kind of celebrations,” he added. “We need to be playing some good basketball. We’ve got four of our last six on the road.”

Utah’s 17th-consecutive win at home kept the Utes (20-4, 10-2) in a tie with seventh-ranked Arizona atop the Pac-12 standings. The teams meet here on Feb. 28.

However, between now and then, Utah has games at Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on Sunday. Then comes a home date against Arizona State on Feb. 26.

Utah’s final games before the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas are at Washington State (March 5) and Washington (March 7).

Entering postseason play with a winning conference record is a notable milestone.

“It means a lot, just seeing where this program was four years ago — six wins in a year — and now we’re one of the top teams in the Pac-12,” said senior guard Delon Wright. “It means a lot to change this program.”

In Sunday’s win, the Utes used a balanced attack to prevail. Jakob Poeltl led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds. Wright finished with 16 points, five assists and three steals. Brandon Taylor and Dakarai Tucker added 13 and 12 points, respectively, while Chris Reyes pulled down 10 rebounds.

Utah led 40-34 at the end of a first half featuring five lead changes and three ties. The Utes overcame a six-point deficit with a 14-2 run over the final 4:41. Brekkott Chapman fueled the outburst with six points. California air-balled the front end of a one-and-one and turned the ball over on a five-second call trying to inbound the ball during the pivotal stretch.

“They came in and gave us all we could handle to start with and we managed to make enough plays,” Krystkowiak said.

Earlier in the half, Utah jumped out to a 15-7 advantage before California stormed back into contention. The Bears held the Utes scoreless for more than three minutes at one point while reeling off 10 straight points. They added six more during a drought of more than two minutes later in the half to take the first of two six-point leads at 28-22. The second one preceded Utah’s decisive response.

The Utes got really defensive when the second half started. They extended their lead to 46-34 while the Bears missed their first 10 shots after the break and never drew closer than nine points the rest of the way.

“They turned up the pressure, tried to make us turn it over. I thought we got stagnant as opposed to getting it across half court and getting it to the rim. We allowed them to get their defense set,” said California coach Cuonzo Martin. “When the defense is extended the way that they did, you have to make plays. We teach our guys to attack the rim and be aggressive. That’s when you make plays. We just came up short making plays in the second half.”

Even so, the Bears (16-10, 6-7) outrebounded the Utes 35-34 and had the game’s top scorers in Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird. Wallace had 26 points and Bird finished with 21.

“We just needed to play harder and I thought that made a difference,” Krystkowiak said. “We came out in the second half and got out and ran and scored some baskets."

The Utes had a little scare in the second half when Wright left the game briefly with a right ankle injury. However, Wright insists all is well. He wound up playing 35 minutes.

“I’ll be fine. I was able to come back. The doctors just checked it out,” Wright said. “It was a little sore but I’ll be back practicing tomorrow.”

Sunday’s game was a tough one emotionally for the Utes. On Saturday, they learned that Rick Hill, the father of assistant coach Andy Hill, had passed away. The team dedicated the season to him during his battle with a rare brain tumor.

“It was rough,” Krystkowiak said. “ ... He’s been an inspiration to us all.”


Twitter: @DirkFacer