The game clock had just ticked under seven minutes to go in the game, and the Utes were looking depleted. Trailing by seven points to an upstart Cal team, who has been as hot as anyone in the country these last couple of weeks, Utah looked as if it was in store for another semifinal exit from the Pac-12 Tournament.
But then something happened — something that usually only Arizona players are used to inside the MGM Grand Arena during the beginning weeks of March. The Utah fans whostayed up past their bedtime to take in one of the most exciting games of the tournament got on their feet. Chants of, “Let’s Go, Utah” began to flood the venue, and this crazy thing happened — the Runnin’ Utes started to play better.
It’s no secret that Utah has always played better at home. Like most teams, the Utes just feel most comfortable inside the confines of their own gym and behind the support of a typically energetic Utah crowd.
To say that the Utes struggle at neutral courts would be ludicrous, considering they are 5-1 in such games this season. But to say that the traveling Ute fans who braved the late hours of the Vegas night didn’t have an impact on the players and the outcome of the game would be equally ludicrous.
“After we scored, the crowd just got fired up — they kept getting fired up,” said point guard Brandon Taylor after the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, Utah players and coaches went into a frenzy, typical behavior of a team that just won an emotional overtime game to head to its first conference championship game since joining the Pac-12.
But this team isn’t oblivious. The Utes knew that without the backing of the strong fan presence, they wouldn’t have been able to squeak that win out, and they made sure the fans knew it. Shortly after celebrating with one another, everyone on the Utah bench, including Ute head coach Larry Krystkowiak, immediately turned to the Utah-heavy crowd and threw up their trademark ‘U’ with their fingers.
For a brief moment, inside the beauty that is the MGM, it seemed as if we were in the Huntsman Center for Friday night’s win, and the Utes have their fans to thank for that.
On Saturday night, Utah will be squaring off against Pac-12 regular-season champion Oregon, a team the Utes have not beaten since 2013. And if you watched that first semifinal, you’d see that the Ducks have a good chance of keeping that winning streak alive, considering the tenacity and urgency they play with.
But Utah understands the opportunity that has been placed before it on Saturday night. Krystkowiak, in just his fifth season as head coach, has led his team to the Pac-12 Championship Game, a goal for them since Day 1. Semifinal exit after semifinal exit has haunted them in years past, but the Utes have a special opportunity to etch their name into Utah basketball history.
There’s no doubt the Runnin’ Utes want to win this game, which would make it their first Pac-12 Championship ever. But there’s another reason they want to win this game — for their fans. They know that without the supportive fan base that has backed this team all season long, they wouldn’t have this amazing chance to play in a conference championship.
So Ute fans, while it seems that Krystkowiak is building something special in Salt Lake City (assuming this won’t be the last time this team competes for a Pac-12 Championship), this is a special moment not only in this team’s career, but the entire program’s history. Get on a plane, hop in a car, take a train, do what you have to do, but get down to Sin City for Saturday night’s contest with the Ducks. If this game is half as good as the basketball that was played inside the MGM on Friday, then you’ll be in for a real treat.
Win or lose, it’s been one hell of a ride for this Utah basketball team, who was questioned early on in the campaign. But the Utes clearly feed off of the energy given by their crowd, and they surely could use one more boost come Saturday night.