LAS VEGAS — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak hugged his 10 year-old son Ben outside of the Utes’ locker room at MGM Grand Garden Arena after a 64-45 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
“Ready to go?” Krystkowiak asked.
The No. 10-seeded Utes will fly home from Las Vegas on Saturday, but players and coaches agreed that they have plenty to be proud of after winning two games against higher seeds this week.
“I think we all strive to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year and that’s what our fellas did,” Krystkowiak said. “It gave you a little taste of what success can be like. I know it’s fun to keep coming back here every day and advance. There’s excitement about being involved with it and an opportunity to be on ESPN. Those things are all fantastic for our program.”
[Related: Oregon bursts Utah's bubble with 64-45 win]
Utah kicked things off with a 69-66 win over No. 7 seed USC in the opening round and kept it rolling with a thrilling 79-69 overtime win against No. 2 seed Cal on Thursday.
Not only did Utah bring a large number of its own fans and the rowdy MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section), it seemed that most every neutral observer threw support behind the underdog Utes. They had two losing streaks of four games or more this season, but finished the year by winning four straight games, including a victory over a ranked Oregon team to close the regular season at home.
“We struggled for the season and Coach always told us something great was going to happen,” freshman guard Brandon Taylor said. “We kept believing. We were at our lowest point but we turned it around. Coach knew what he had to do to get us on the right track and we turned it around to make it this far. I’m proud of my team.”
For a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2009, Utah’s run in Las Vegas gives Krystkowiak’s team a newfound level of confidence for next season.
“It was a great run to be here in this atmosphere with all our fans and family coming out,” freshman Jordan Loveridge said. “We did a lot of things that people said we couldn’t this year and we showed that Utah basketball is headed in the right direction and it’s just going to keep going up from here.”