SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak says the season is like a roller-coaster ride. There’s ups and downs. After capping a swap of the Bay Area schools with a 77-43 win over California Saturday in the Huntsman Center, the Utes are in the midst of some positive twists and turns.
The victories over the Golden Bears and Stanford has lifted Utah to a 7-6 record in Pac-12 play with five games left to play. They enter this week’s road games at Washington and Washington State still in the mix for a top four finish and a first-round bye in next month’s conference tournament in Las Vegas.
“My goal has always been to try to be playing your best basketball at the right time of year,” Krystkowiak said. “We got a nice feel this weekend, but it needs to be next weekend as well, and we need to finish the season off on a high note.”
Senior guard Justin Bibbins noted that the Utes are in a good place and excited about the road ahead, After the Washington trip, they close out the season at home against USC (Feb. 22), UCLA (Feb. 24) and Colorado (March 3).
“We know we still have a good opportunity to make a run and we’re confident,” said Bibbins, who added that the Utes are going in with a one-game-at-a-time approach and a defensive mentality. “We’ll see where it takes us.”
Defense was certainly a factor in the rout of Cal. The Golden Bears shot just 30.2 percent from the field, including 4-of-24 accuracy from 3-point range. The Utes forced 16 turnovers and scored 19 points off of them.
“The focus needs to be on defense. We did a great job defending both teams (Stanford and Cal). When we did that, things flowed freely. We were able to get out in transition and make easy shots on the other end,” said senior forward Tyler Rawson. “It’s definitely depressing for the other team when shots aren’t falling and you’ve got to go back and play defense. So when we focus and really lock down and shut guys down, that’s when we’re at our best.”
The Utes (15-9 overall) played pretty well on an emotional day that began with attendance at the funeral of team friend Jon M. Huntsman. Then came the game and the buzz generated with the 20th anniversary reunion of the 1997-98 team that reached the national title clash against Kentucky.
Utah wound up with 24 assists in the victory over Cal.
“We were looking out for each other,” Krystkowiak said. “Jon was looking down and (we) got a couple of bounces and good things happened.”
David Collette finished with a team-high 18 points. The senior forward made 9 of 10 shots from the field. Bibbins added 15 points and Sedrick Barefield chipped in 13.
Rawson topped the Utes with eight assists, seven coming in the decisive first half.
“Coach does a good job of putting me in a position where I can be a playmaker, just finding guys,” said Rawson, who noted that zone defenses tend to suck in whenever he catches a pass in the high post. “It’s my go-to thing — is to pass — and I enjoy finding teammates getting open shots. It’s a real thrill when you’re playing as a team. It’s fun basketball.
The Utes shared the ball to the tune of assisting on all but four of their 28 field goals in the game. Bibbins said a lot of the assists came from transition baskets that came off of defensive stops.
“But that’s just what Utah basketball is about — is just making one more pass, making an extra pass and just playing the right way,” he continued. “When we do that we’re a great team. We play fun basketball. It’s nice to go and showcase that.”