Thursday night, Stanford didn't care about rankings or odds, they just played hard, and gave No. 17 Utah a scare... for about 25 minutes. Utah's depth wore down the thin Stanford roster, and Cardinal big Stefan Nastic got into foul trouble, leading to the 80-56 Utes win in the Pac-12 tournament.
Delon Wright led the Utes with one of his most complete games of the season, scoring 20 points, pulling down seven rebounds, dishing out five assists, and blocking three shots, and swiping one steal. Passed over for the Pac-12 Player of the Year in favor of Oregon's Joseph Young, Wright put on a clinic, including nailing 4-of-4 from behind the three-point arc. Wright was clutch, scoring when his team needed, but, perhaps more important, he was also getting teammates involved with his passing, as well as locking down his assignments on the defensive end. The win sets up a rematch between Wright and Young tonight.
The first half was a back and forth affair. Utah was down by six points, up by five, and down by five at the half. Utah shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half (13-of-26) and 57.1 percent from behind the arc; however, that changed in the second half. Utah continued it's torrid shooting from the floor, maintaining its 50 percent overall, but the Runnin' Utes began to find the shooting touch from deep, increasing their three-point percent to 66.7 percent (8-of-12).
In the second half, Stanford's lack of depth reared its ugly head again. In the Jon M. Huntsman Center, other than a blanking of leading scorer Chasson Randle, the Cardinal jumped out to a 10-4 lead, putting the pressure on the hometown Utes. But they faded in the second, just as they did Thursday night. Freshman point guard Isaiah Wright hit a three-pointer with 14:48 in the second half to push the Utes lead to 48-44, and Utah was never threatened again.
Jordan Loveridge had one of his best games of the season, tallying 18 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. Unlike some games where he just roamed the perimeter looking for a wing or baseline three, Loveridge attacked the basket, even driving the ball deep into traffic before getting finger rolls to drop. On the glass, Loveridge had by far the best game of his junior year, exactly when his team needed it. (If he continues that mentality and aggression on the boards against Oregon, it could be a complete turnaround from the previous matchup in Eugene, Ore.)
The Utes also got the second good game in a row from Austrian center Jakob Poeltl. The 7-footer dropped in 16 points, collected five rebounds (four offensive), and added two assists and one blocked shot. Poeltl shot 5-of-7 from the field, which is not much of a surprise for a 69 percent shooter, but he has improved his touch from the free throw line, which was a surprise. The big Austrian shot a remarkable 6-of-8 from the stripe, which, if it continues, could mean he's on his way to being a double-double man next season.
Starting point guard Brandon Taylor, however, struggled in this game, making just 2-of-7 shots (2-of-5 from deep) and finishing with six points and just one assist. Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak, seeing his starter struggling, replaced him in much of the second half with the freshman I. Wright. However, Taylor was more aggressive early in the game, driving the ball, as opposed to simply passing the ball around the exterior of the Cardinal zone.
Another interesting maneuver (as advocated by BlockU.com) was the insertion of freshman Brekkott Chapman into the starting lineup. For the first time this season, junior forward Chris Reyes started the game riding the pine. Chapman finished the game with eight points and four rebounds, remarkably not getting off a single three-pointer. But his length on the defense and his size were a defensive factor in the first half.
On the other side of the ball, Stefan Nastic, who had 21 against Washington, was held to just 11 points and four rebounds. Randle went off for 22 points, shooting 7-of-16 (43.8 percent).
As a team, Stanford shot 48.1 percent in the first half (13-of-27), but the Utes shut the Cardinal down in the second half. Stanford shot just 25 percent from the field (6-of-24) and were equally powerless from downtown (2-of-8). In fact, the No. 17-ranked Runnin' Utes made more three-pointers (8) in the second half than they allowed total field goals (6) from Stanford.
Utah now takes on Oregon, the team who took over Utah's second seed after the Utes dropped an inexplicable game at bottom-dwelling Washington. Tonight's game takes place at 9:30 MT on ESPN. Projections by Joe Lunardi had Utah needing to advance to maintain a four-seed, and the Utes will likely need to beat both Oregon tonight and Arizona in the finals in order to notch another line in the NCAA Tournament.
While there are lots of subplots to tonight's game, including POY vs POY snub, COY vs COY preseason favorite, there is a more important element. Utah needs to show Oregon its one of the big boys in the Pac-12. Finishing tied for second in the conference just three years removed from a 6-25 season is an accomplishment for certain and sent a message to the rest of the conference. However, Utah failed to beat Arizona and is just 1-6 (including conference tournament games) against Oregon since joining the Pac-12. Beating both and winning the conference tournament would be a nice feather in the caps of both the head coach and the seniors like Wright and Dallin Bachysnki, as well as send the message that the Utes are back to being a legitimate power in the West.