SALT LAKE CITY — Larry Krystkowiak said this week that winning the Pac-12 regular-season championship wasn’t a team goal and the Utes wouldn’t celebrate much if they did. His reasoning: There are bigger fish to fry.
Tell that to the crowd at the Huntsman Center.
It acted like second place was a return to the Final Four. In fairness, even finishing second in the conference wasn’t bad.
The Utes wrapped up the regular season on Saturday with a 57-55 win over Colorado. That gave the Utes a second-place finish in the Pac-12 and the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
“It was a little bit surreal,” Kyrstkowiak said of the week leading up.
Don’t tell the coach, but it was a pretty nice way to say goodbye to their arena for a few months. Utah weathered a horrendous shooting game, a 14-0 Colorado run, and a worrisome ending, to finish the regular season at 24-7, 13-5 in conference.
“Quite a fitting ending for our team, to send them off on that note,” Krystkowiak said.
But with the conference tournament looming, it’s understandable why he would be subdued in the days leading up to Saturday. Oddly enough, his stance on the regular season is the polar opposite of the last consistent winner at Utah, Rick Majerus, who deemed conference tourneys a waste of time.
“I really believe that the regular season is everything,” Majerus said after moving on to coach at Saint Louis.
At any rate, the Huntsman Center crowd was loving it, standing in clusters at court’s edge long after the game. It had felt like a championship game, even if it wasn’t — the band blaring, fans on their feet, chaos all around.
That hasn’t always been the case.
It took a while, but Krystkowiak has awakened the place.
Finishing the regular season at home was a nice perk for the Utes, where they went 16-1. But not long ago, that was only a daydream. Defend their home? They couldn’t guard a crosswalk.
Utah is 50-4 at home, dating back to 2013-14. But just the previous year they were only 11-7. In Krystkowiak’s first year at Utah, his team was just 6-10 at home.
All totaled, the Utes have won 80 percent of their games at the Huntsman Center, which was completed in 1969.
Saturday’s win gave Utah a seven-game conference win streak, it’s longest since 2008-09 when it won eight in the Mountain West. That year they got manhandled by Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Just last week the Utes dispatched Arizona in Salt Lake.
By any measure the Huntsman Center has been good to the Utes. In 1976, back when the arena was just a toddler, they beat No. 5 UNLV. In 1978 they took it to No. 5 New Mexico. In 1996 they lost to No. 2 Wake Forest, but it left an impression. Former Ute Keith Van Horn claims Tim Duncan once told him it was the loudest crowd he ever played to.
It was at the Huntsman that Utah took down No. 14 Texas in 1999 and Gonzaga in 2008. In 2002 the Utes rudely interrupted No. 1 Alabama.
Colorado on Saturday was none of those, but it was no pushover, either. The game required a Jordan Loveridge 3-point bank shot to reverse Utah’ slide.
Both teams shot 31 percent for the game.
“It looked like a football score,” Krystkowiak said.
Oregon’s win earlier in the day clinched the Pac-12 championship outright.
By halftime the scores were all in. A win meant the Utes would secure second place in the conference and in the conference tournament. A loss meant a three-way tie for third place and a No. 3 seeding.
But after a terrible stretch of shooting, the Utes trailed by 14 with eight minutes to go.
It was all over but visiting the shrink.
However, Loveridge’s crazy shot somehow got them started again. The Huntsman crowd roared to its feet.
What this means for Utah in the NCAA tourney remains conjecture. The Utes are still rolling, but barely. Earlier this week, Eammon Brennan of ESPN.com described the Utes as “looking as fearsome as any in the sport heading into March.” His colleague, Dana O’Neil, added that fans didn’t storm the court after last week’s win over Arizona “because in the grand picture, it’s not really an upset.”
Good point. Regardless of what happens from here, their home court has become a grand picture indeed.
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