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In the critical moments of the University of Utah's biggest basketball game in 10 years, senior guard Delon Wright did what seemingly everyone who watches the Utes has wanted him to do. He took over the game.
Disclaimer: He did so in his usual, understated style.
Wright's guiding the Utes down the stretch of that 75-64 victory over Georgetown last Saturday, sending them into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, was not a case of trying to do it all by himself offensively. That's not his game.
The play-by-play account of the Utes' decisive 16-6 run in a tie game with seven minutes left barely mentions the Wooden Award finalist, who contributed three free throws, two rebounds and one assist. Yet that winning sequence will remain a lasting image of Wright as a Ute, because of the poise and leadership he showed and the way all four of his teammates became involved in the production.
Dakarai Tucker, Brandon Taylor, Dallin Bachynski and Jordan Loveridge played big roles as Utah scored on every possession during that run and advanced to Friday's meeting with Duke in the South Region semifinals in Houston.
The Utes may have more in store in this tournament. No matter what happens, they have fulfilled every reasonable expectation of their season by capitalizing on Wright's talent.
Much like former coach Ray Giacoletti with Wooden Award-winning center Andrew Bogut in 2005, Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff were charged with maximizing a team built around a future NBA first-round pick. Amid whatever pressure accompanied such coaching responsibility, "Delon's made that pretty easy," Krystkowiak said. "We haven't had to think about it too much. He seems to find his niche pretty well and figure out what it is our team needs from him on a given night."
That's frustrating to some observers, who have wished Wright would drive and shoot more. "I hear that a lot," he said this week. That's tricky, though. Krystkowiak endorses Wright's ability to pick his spots, frequently retelling the story of the game vs. Kansas in December, when he scored the bulk of his 23 points after the Utes fell behind by 21. He almost rallied his team to a remarkable win.
There's also the tale of a loss at San Diego State in November, when Wright tried to do too much and went 2 of 13 from the field after losing faith in his teammates and deviating from the game plan. This, then, is the summary of his career: "Nine out of 10 times, he's making the right play," Krystkowiak said.
Against Georgetown, Wright took seven shots (making two) in 37 minutes and made 8 of 10 free throws. He recorded only two assists, but his direction of the offense at the end of the game made him very valuable.
His overall influence resembled Bogut's impact 10 years ago. Bogut scored only two of Utah's first 40 points in a win over Oklahoma in the round of 32, becoming primarily a passer and helping the Utes play an efficient game, with seven assists. As Wright did against Georgetown, Bogut took only seven shots (making four), but the strategy worked.
Now, the Utes are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Bogut era, and Wright's arrival from junior college accelerated their rebuilding timetable. During a game early in the 2013-14 season, Wright made a play that caused Krystkowiak to marvel. He turned to his assistants and said, "He's going to make it a little bit easier for us."
His teammates recognized that immediately, as well. "You could just tell he had a good feel for the game," Taylor said.
When he fields questions about his decision-making not shooting enough, in other words Wright likes to say he's just reacting to the opponents' coverage, "playing a mind game with the defense."
Shooters such as Taylor have learned to stay ready, because the ball likely is coming to them when it is in Wright's hands. The Utes haven't always come through at the end of games this season, but they delivered against Georgetown, as Wright steadied them.
It was another case of a player making his teammates better, and that's how Wright will be remembered at Utah.
In good company
Delon Wright is expected to follow Andre Miller (1999) as a Utah point guard picked in the first round of the NBA draft. Their senior-year statistics:
Player G Min FG 3-pt Pts Ast Reb Stl
Miller 33 33.1 .491 .265 15.8 5.6 5.4 2.5
Wright 34 33.3 .518 .361 14.7 5.1 4.9 2