#rushthetrip Day 15: Ute Revival Put On Hold in Salt Lake CityPosted by Bennet Hayes on February 21st, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
Wednesday brought me back into Utah (which is quickly becoming the official home state of #rushthetrip!) for a rendezvous between the Utes and #4 Arizona. As of Tuesday, few bracketologists (including our own Daniel Evans) had Utah in the field — or even in that first crop of teams missing out — but finding a way to nip the Cats would surely thrust Larry Krystkowiak’s group into the bubble discussion. And for the once-spoiled turned long-suffering Utes’ fans (just one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005 after making 10 of 11 trips from 1995-2005), the opportunity at hand had to make this one of the biggest college basketball games Salt Lake City has seen in the last decade.
The Huntsman Center atmosphere supported that thesis. Fans filled the sizable gym (a listed attendance of 14,266 fell a few seats short of capacity), and despite a first half that featured little in the way of positive developments for the Utes, stayed involved throughout. The student section was amazing, nearly stretching all the way from floor to rafters, a sea of red fully prepped to swallow up the Wildcats. Their consistent engagement would pay off in the latter portions of the second half, as the Utes scrapped their way back into a game that they had trailed by 12 with 13 minutes to play. I was more than happy to be forced to spend most of the final 10 minutes (plus overtime) standing behind the Huntsman Center masses. Once that Ute surge began in earnest, there was nary a seated fanny in the building; I can’t recall too many games where I’ve seen seats used less frequently. Clearly, Utah fans wanted this game.
Unfortunately, their team couldn’t deliver that victory. Turnovers and missed free throws cost the young Utes down the stretch, and Arizona did just enough to win an entertaining – if not aesthetically pleasing – contest. As fans lingered in the Huntsman Center after the game, the sense of letdown was palpable. I saw nothing in the way of anger or even frustration – just a distinct sense of disappointment, the sadness that accompanies an opportunity lost. The depth of the Pac-12 will afford the Utes more resume-enhancing chances in the four games remaining on their schedule, but with March fast approaching, the bitter stench of the NIT lingered in the Salt Lake City night air Wednesday night.
While you would expect a program with the extensive history that Utah has – a national title in ’44, runners-up in ’98, 27 NCAA Tournament appearances – to supply a tremendous home-court experience, you never know what to expect when more recent archives offer little in the way of success. But with Utah finally showing signs of life under Krystkowiak late last year and again here in 2013-14, this felt like the night to officially announce the return of the Utes. They had entered the evening 16-1 in the Huntsman Center (the lone blemish coming in overtime to Oregon), and students and fans arrived fully expecting to extend that sterling record. The precise moment of “the return of the Utes” obviously didn’t come Wednesday, but I’d posit that the combination of a young team, inspired coach, and storied tradition means that Utah’s time shouldn’t be too far around the corner – and deservedly so. The college hoops egalitarian in me would prefer to root for a fan base that’s endured far more suffering than Utah’s, but I left the Huntsman Center with an undeniable sentiment: For everyone’s sake, it’s about time that Utah becomes elite again.
Next (and Final) Stop: Provo.