This wasn’t the first time that Utah found itself in a close contest. It wasn’t the first time it found itself losing to start the second half. In fact, Thursday night’s game against Stanford was the ninth time this season that the Runnin’ Utes were tied or losing heading into the locker rooms at the half.
At the break the Utes did a complete turnaround, turning a five-point deficit into a 24-point demolition of the Cardinal. It wasn’t all pretty, but Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak knows how to get his guys to switch the flip and kick it into another gear, just like they’ve done a number of other times this campaign.
“I challenged the team at halftime to come out and play an honest effort-type defense, and it was a really good second half,” Krystkowiak said.
Looking at the numbers, the difference between the halves was astronomical.
After registering just 10 rebounds in the first half, Utah dominated the glass in the second to the tune of 29 boards. The Utes scored 34 points in the first half, but then turned it up a notch, scoring 46 in the second. The players clearly accepted Krystkowiak’s halftime challenge, holding Stanford to 17 second-half points after allowing 39 in the first.
But it’s not just between halves where Utah knows how to up the ante. It’s no secret that the Runnin’ Utes had a below-average finish to the regular season, but that is an afterthought to them.
“Coach always talks about how there’s different seasons,” Jordan Loveridge said. “We kind of just wanted a clean slate. This is our postseason and we wanted to come out and play as well as we could.”
Loveridge tied a season-high Thursday night with 18 points, keeping the Utes in the game in the first half and making a number of plays in the second to build momentum. And while Loveridge and company are feeling good about the quarterfinal win, there are still a few more things to wipe off of that slate.
The glaring issue with this team has to be the slow starts to games. As mentioned earlier, Utah has had games this season that required the Utes to turn that switch and make a comeback, including last night. Pretty much a shoo-in to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the Utes will have to mend this problem if they want to make a run.
But for now, the Runnin’ Utes are focused on semifinal matchup with the Ducks, and making it to the Pac-12 Championship for the first time since joining the conference. While Utah will undoubtedly be looking to avenge a Feb. 22 loss in Eugene, an intriguing storyline in this game will be the individual battle between Delon Wright and Oregon’s Joseph Young.
The coaches in the Pac-12 surprised everyone last week by voting Young the Player of the Year over Wright, and according to Krystkowiak, the key to stopping the Ducks will be stopping their star player in Young.
“[Young] is kind of the head of the snake,” Krystkowiak said. “I think he gives them a little bit of swagger and makes them feel pretty good about what they’re doing.”
Utah and Oregon are scheduled to tip-off at 8:30 p.m. PST.