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When the buzzer sounded to conclude the biggest victory in Utah's Pac-12 history, the basketball landed in the hands of Jakob Poeltl, but not for long. The sophomore center launched the ball toward the scoreboard in one of those joyful college moments that he'll always remember on his way to the NBA.
As of Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, the Utes' 70-64 victory over Arizona made everything seem worthwhile for everybody associated with this program. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak's building project, Brandon Taylor's fighting through the tough times of his senior year, Poeltl's return for a second season and 15,000-plus fans' agonizing through an intense second half all were rewarded, in the end.
And a share of Pac-12 championship remains in play for the Utes maybe even the whole thing, if they get enough help from Oregon's opponents after they finally took down the conference's flagship program.
"Arizona's one of those teams, I don't care who they have on their roster, it's a good win," Taylor said.
Never one to dwell on checkpoints or landmarks, Krystkowiak would say only, "I'd be lyin' if I said it wasn't pretty important" as he acknowledged "a pretty darned good feeling."
After all, there's much more to do in March. Yet this became a signature moment of Krystkowiak's five seasons, coinciding with the school's Pac-12 membership. Just like last February, Arizona's visit evoked special stuff glow sticks during introductions, Poeltl-inspired T-shirts with umlauts on the front, a packed Huntsman Center and the coach's wearing his red jacket, for as long as it would last during a stressful afternoon.
At some point, merely playing big games like this against Arizona wouldn't be satisfying enough. Utah had to start winning them, and that's why Saturday's finish was so meaningful.
The best part? The Wildcats made Utah earn the breakthrough victory. The Utes led by 11 points at halftime, and if Dakarai Tucker's late 3-point try had gone in, the potential court-storming may have started right then and there. The next thing anybody knew, Arizona was surging ahead. Utah answered one flurry; the Wildcats produced another. After a Kaleb Tarczewski tip-in, Arizona led 59-55 with 6:17 remaining.
That marked the second time "the life was sucked out of the arena," by Krystkowiak's account, and his barometer seemed accurate. The Utes recovered, and the fans responded. Arizona's last 10 possessions of the game netted five points, and the Utah gradually moved ahead with offensive contributions from Jordan Loveridge, Taylor, Poeltl and Lorenzo Bonam.
The dagger was Taylor's 3-pointer for a 64-59 lead with 40 seconds left, after Poeltl's offensive rebound. The Utes were 6 of 23 from 3-point range until that moment, as they struggled just to score 30 points in the second half. But Taylor came through by scoring 15 of his 19 points after halftime, extending his personal comeback from disastrous finishes in losses at Stanford and Oregon State. After the Utes' Oregon swing in early February, "I was at a very low point," he said. "I wasn't believing in myself."
He's cured now, and so are the Utes. They've won six straight games, moving to 12-5 in the Pac-12. Utah trails Oregon (11-4) with only a home game vs. Colorado left. The Ducks have three more contests, one at home and two on the road. The math is fairly simple for Oregon and Utah and highly unfavorable to Arizona (10-6).
Utah-Colorado next Saturday is the last game of the Pac-12 schedule, so the Utes will know exactly what's available to them in terms of the conference title. That's why Saturday's postgame celebration was properly subdued. The MUSS was self-restrained, with students not rushing onto the court as regularly occurs around the league when Arizona loses.
The players high-fived the front row, as some fans exhorted Poeltl with a chant of "One more year!" That's being greedy, of course. With his 14-point, 10-rebound effort, Poeltl did just enough Saturday to create a lasting impression. Nobody could ask much more of him or his teammates than beating Arizona, just this once.
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