Rapidly improving Utah suddenly only two wins from unlikely NCAA bid

LAS VEGAS — When Jordan Loveridge had the third of three free throws rim out to leave Utah still down a point with 18 seconds to go, the freshman guard feared he cost his team its best chance to tie the game.

Thankfully for Loveridge, one of his teammates had his back.

With Utah's deficit at three after a pair of Allen Crabbe free throws, senior guard Jarred DuBois dribbled around a screen, created just enough space to get a shot off and fired a fadeaway left-wing 3-pointer with just a few ticks left on the clock. He hit all net, enabling 10th-seeded Utah to force overtime and spring the biggest upset of the Pac-12 tournament so far with a 79-69 victory over second-seeded Cal.

"Jarred and I were joking about it afterward," Loveridge said. "I'm like, 'Oh man, if you didn't hit that shot, I know I'm going to be on ESPN all night. I told him, 'Thank you. Thank you for that.'"

An appearance in the Pac-12 semifinals is the latest sign of incremental progress during the second season of coach Larry Krystkowiak's tenure. Utah staggered through a humbling 6-25 season last year that began with a flurry of transfers and included blowout losses to Weber State, Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State, but a deeper, more talented Utes team has tallied nine more wins already this season.

Loveridge, Utah's top recruit, has blossomed into one of the Pac-12's better freshmen. DuBois, a transfer from LMU, has delivered instant offense with his outside shooting. And 7-foot senior Jason Washburn has built on the progress he made last year as a interior scorer and rim protector.

The result is a team that isn't elite at anything, but has made enough strides in all areas to remain competitive against the Pac-12's upper-echelon teams. That's not going to bring back any memories of the Rick Majerus glory days, but it's significant considering where the Utes were this time last year.

"We're pleased with where we are," Krystkowiak said. "Credit needs to go to our team. A lot of times it's coach talk about how a team sticks together, but it was unbelievable to be able to withstand some of those losses early. ... It was really a strain on all of our psyches to stay with it."

It was the trio of Dubois, Loveridge and Washburn who sparked the Cal win. They combined for 59 points and spearheaded a defensive effort that enabled the Utes to overcome Cal's 15 offensive rebounds and 47 points combined from guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs.

When the final buzzer sounded and the pro-Utah crowd erupted in celebration, the Utes somehow, someway stand only two wins away from the most unlikely of NCAA tournament bids. It's far enough away to still be improbable, but with either Washington or Oregon up next in the semifinals -- both beatable teams -- it's also close enough for Utah to dare to dream.

"We knew we were going to have a chance to make a run in this tournament because so many of our losses have been so close," Loveridge said. "We've been one play or one turnover away from being higher in the league. We have to take one game at a time, but the NCAA tournament is always going to be in the back of our minds."

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