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Everybody knew the Utah Utes were a front-running team, because they've thrived all season by building leads and extending them. So when they started poorly against Georgetown, falling behind by 11 points, they obviously were in trouble in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32.
Everybody wondered how the Utes would respond in the end, because they've wobbled in tight games against good opponents. So when they failed to shake the Hoyas in the middle of the second half and found themselves in a tie game with seven minutes left, nothing suggested they were about to close out a tough team in convincing fashion Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Guess what? That's exactly what they did.
The Utes recovered wonderfully in the first half and finished even stronger in a 75-64 victory that sends them into the Sweet 16 vs. Duke or San Diego State next Friday in Houston.
The state of the Utes? "Pure joy," said senior center Dallin Bachynski, and the feeling was justified.
This performance validated everything about this team and coach Larry Krystkowiak's program. The No. 4-seeded Utes matched the NCAA showing of the 2005 team, with roughly the same degree of difficulty in the tournament's opening weekend but with much more history to overcome.
Krystkowiak loves his wry, standard answer to the question about whether this seems like a quick turnaround of a downtrodden program. His latest calculation is "about 1,500 days" since his hiring, suggesting that living through the process is tougher than merely observing it.
Regardless, the Utes have succeeded. "I know we're not done," Bachynski said, and he's right. More opportunity awaits this team. But whenever the season does end, the Utes can feel great satisfaction. They've maximized the talent of senior guard Delon Wright, they've kept growing after seemingly hitting a ceiling in late February and they've advanced from a matchup with Georgetown that could have exposed them in multiple ways.
They're still playing, and deservedly so. The Sweet 16 long ago became my point of judgment for these Utes. They got there because of "some tough basketball players that made tough plays," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III.
After the Hoyas battled back to a 53-53 tie, the Utes took over this game. Having struggled offensively so many times against high-level opponents, Utah figured out something Saturday. The result was one big play after another: Darkarai Tucker and Jordan Loveridge each scored in the lane. Wright made two free throws. Brandon Taylor delivered a 3-pointer, then assisted Tucker for an inside basket.
Just like that, the Utes were in command.
They showed they had learned from some tough defeats recently, including losses to Arizona at the Huntsman Center in a high-profile game, at Washington to close the regular season and to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals in Las Vegas. That's what made their poised performance down the stretch so impressive.
"You have to experience some of those losses and maybe feel some of that pain before you can really clamp down," Krystkowiak said.
The Utes produced their best stuff at the end against Georgetown. Yet their opportunity to win at that stage was made possible by their response to the bad start. Utah's proud defense, which had allowed 50 points all night Thursday vs Stephen F. Austin, gave up 23 in the first 7 minutes, 17 seconds Saturday.
Maybe that worked in Utah's favor. The Hoyas "fell in love with shooting those jump shots," Thompson said, and the percentages eventually worked against them.
As for the Utes, "a little perseverance," by Krystkowiak's account, carried them a long way.
And now they're headed to Houston. Having experienced the program's climb from the depths of a 6-25 season in 2011-12, when he redshirted as a transfer, Bachynski spoke for all of the Utes when he said, "I'm just trying to enjoy every moment."