PORTLAND, Ore. — As Utah guard Brandon Taylor sat in the crowded locker room at the Moda Center, he acknowledged that the Utes’ first NCAA Tournament victory in exactly 10 years wasn’t easy. Stephen F. Austin put up quite a fight — pulling within two points in the final minute — Thursday in the round of 64.
But the fifth-seeded Utes managed to hang on, prevailing 57-50 to advance to a Saturday showdown against Georgetown. The winner of that game moves on to next week’s South Regional in Houston.
“It just feels good. That was a battle. That was a hard-fought game and S.F. Austin gave us our hardest hit. They came out and they pressured us all game,” Taylor said. “We haven’t been pressured like that, especially in the half-court.”
Taylor added that the Utes (25-8) are proud to come out of Thursday’s game with a win, despite turning the ball over 17 times in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.
“It’s a different level and everyone knows that,” Taylor said. “It’s survive and get on to the next game. It’s almost (like) you have to do anything and everything you can in your power to get to the next game.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak credited his team’s defensive intensity for the victory. The Utes held the Lumberjacks to 33.3 percent shooting, blocked seven shots and recorded seven steals.
“We managed to make enough points and made plays going down the stretch to win the game,” Krystkowiak said.
Freshman center Jakob Poeltl paced the effort with 18 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. The 7-footer, who was six inches taller than any of SFA’s starters, was 7 for 7 from the field.
Krystkowiak said Poeltl was the player of the game on both sides of the ball.
“It makes me feel proud, proud of myself,” Poeltl responded. “But it doesn’t really matter any more because that game’s over. We’re trying to look forward to the next game and we’ll see what happens.”
After building a 12-point lead, at 43-31 with 9:05 remaining, the Utes weathered a late rally by the Lumberjacks. SFA closed the deficit to 52-50 on a free throw by Trey Pinkney with 41.2 seconds left to play.
Down the stretch, though, Utah sealed the deal with Delon Wright, Poeltl and Isaiah Wright making key contributions. Delon Wright made two free throws, Poeltl blocked his fifth shot (a 3-point attempt) and Isaiah Wright knocked down three foul shots after pulling down two defensive rebounds.
Lumberjacks coach Brad Underwood had plenty of praise for the 19th-ranked Utes.
“They’re as good as advertised,” he said. “On the defensive end, they’re as solid a basketball team as we have faced all year.”
Utah led 26-19 at halftime. The Utes trailed by one on two occasions early before taking the lead for good on a pair of 3-point shots by Dakarai Tucker. They later pulled comfortably ahead with a 10-0 run that included five points from Loveridge, another 3-pointer by Tucker and a basket from Delon Wright. SFA was held scoreless for nearly eight minutes during the pivotal stretch, missing seven shots and turning the ball over three times as Utah extended its lead to 26-15 with 2:29 to go in the half.
The pesky Lumberjacks then climbed back into contention with 10 straight points over the end of the first half and start of the second — the first of two close comebacks from double-digits down before it was over.
“I feel like that game was a little ugly,” Taylor said. “But I’ve moved on because that’s what you have to do in the NCAA tournament. You have to move on to the next game.”
And for the first time since defeating Oklahoma and advancing to Sweet 16 with Andrew Bogut in 2005, that’s exactly what the Utes are going to do.
EXTRA STUFF: Georgetown advanced with a 84-74 win over Eastern Washington late Thursday night ... Loveridge and Delon Wright finished with 12 and 11 points, respectively, for Utah ... Ty Charles was SFA’s top scorer with 14. Thomas Walkup added 12 ... Taylor scored only two points, but dished out a team-high five assists ... The Lumberjacks outrebounded the Utes 29-26 and had 11 on the offensive end.
Utah (25-8) vs. Georgetown (22-10)
Moda Center, Portland
Saturday, 5:50 p.m. (approximate) MT
Radio: ESPN 700AM