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Utes advance to Pac-12 finals after a thrilling overtime win over Cal

LAS VEGAS — Utah’s season of milestones added another one late Friday night. The Utes advanced to the Pac-12 tournament championship game for the first time with an 82-78 overtime victory at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. They’ll take on Oregon for the title and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on Saturday (8 p.m. MT, FS1).

The regular-season champion Ducks reached the finals with a 95-89 overtime win over Arizona earlier in the evening.

“It’s March Madness at its finest and I’m just extremely proud of our guys for not giving in,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Jakob Poeltl scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as Utah won its ninth consecutive game. Lorenzo Bonam finished with 18 points, while Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor contributed 12 apiece.

“It was kind of a Friday night heavyweight fight — knock down, drag out — and again I’m just really proud of our guys for making plays down the stretch,” Krystkowiak said.

It’s been an eventful week for the 12th-ranked Utes (26-7). They entered the tournament with their highest placement — the No. 2 seed — since joining the conference in 2011-12.

On Monday, Utah scooped up a couple of the Pac-12’s top individual accolades for the first time. Poeltl was named Player of the Year and Taylor earned men’s basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year recognition.

Krystkowiak said of all the individual Pac-12 awards possible, those are the two he would take for the program because they symbolize things on the basketball court and in the classroom.

“To have both guys mentioned in that breath, I think, is pretty darn cool,” he added.

Taylor, who also made the Pac-12’s all-defensive team, expressed his appreciation for the honors after the team arrived in Las Vegas earlier in the week. The academic recognition was especially meaningful.

“That’s just amazing. I know it makes my grandmother happy, and my mom happy, and my family happy,” said Taylor, who is a psychology major with a 3.4 grade point average. “Because they always stress if you don’t have the academic side you’re not going to be anything more than just a basketball player. You want to be able to have something more than just a basketball side.”

After Thursday’s quarterfinals, California coach Cuonzo Martin noted the impact that Poeltl and Taylor make on the floor.

“I think those two guys make them go,” he said.

That was certainly the case early on. Poeltl scored Utah’s first five points and Taylor added the next three in a game-opening 8-2 run. It powered the Utes to a 14-4 advantage.

The big lead didn’t last long, though. It took California less than three minutes to pull even with a 10-0 outburst.

Nine lead changes followed. The Bears grabbed the last one and led 37-33 at halftime.

Utah battled back to take a 42-41 lead in the second half. However, California responded to the rally with a 10-3 spurt.

It wasn’t enough to permanently sway the momentum, though, as a wild exchange took place in the final 49.1 seconds of regulation. Both teams took two leads in the closing minute.

The Utes struck first when Poeltl converted a three-point play to make it 66-65. The Bears countered with a basket by Jabari Bird before Taylor answered with a pair of free throws for Utah. Bird then hit another shot with 4.3 seconds left to play. He added an accompanying free throw as California pulled in front 70-68.

Overtime was forced when Bonam made a layup at the buzzer. The junior guard went coast-to-coast for the score.

“(Coach) said go to the basket, so I just went to the basket,” Bonham said.

Krystkowiak added that there was a lot of time for Bonam to go end-to-end.

“I think he’s about as quick of a guy as you’re going to find when he gets heading downhill,” Krystkowiak said. “So, bit time. Obviously just in the nick of time.”

In the extra session, Poeltl scored the first three points to put Utah ahead for good. The Utes expanded their lead to five on two occasions in the final 55 seconds. It was more than enough to weather a late 3-pointer by Wallace. Loveridge made a pair of free throws with six seconds left to cap all scoring in the late-night affair that ended as the clock neared midnight.

EXTRA STUFF: Oregon won both meetings with Utah during the regular season. The Ducks prevailed 77-59 in Salt Lake City and 76-66 in Eugene . . . Wallace led California with 26 points . . . The Utes are now 6-4 all-time in Pac-12 tournament games . . . Utah is in a conference tourney championship game for the first time since winning the Mountain West crown in 2009.

*****

Pac-12 tournament championship

No. 2 Utah (26-7, 13-5) vs. No. 1 Oregon (27-6, 14-4)

MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas

Saturday, 8 p.m. (MT)

TV: FS1

Radio: 700AM

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer