LAS VEGAS — The young Utah Utes are figuring out how to close out tight games at the right time.
Jarred DuBois scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half, Jordan Loveridge added 15 and Utah opened the Pac-12 tournament with a 69-66 win over short-handed Southern California on Wednesday night.
A young team that struggled in close games early in the season, particularly against Sacramento State and Cal State Northridge, the Utes (14-17) held their poise as USC made several runs, earning a spot in Thursday’s quarterfinals against second-seeded California.
“We’ve managed to win some games going away; we’ve managed to win some close games,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “And fortunately, in this game, it’s one that maybe we can look back upon.”
USC (14-18) went down with a fight despite playing without leading rebounder Dewayne Dedmon and backup center James Blasczyk, who were suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.
The Trojans fought back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to make it close and outscored Utah 42-14 inside. USC struggled from the perimeter, though, hitting 3 of 15 shots from 3-point range and spent most of the game trying to claw back from deficits.
Omar Oraby had 18 points and 10 rebounds and J.T. Terrell added 14 for USC.
“It’s been a long year, but there are a lot of great things that have happened since the coaching change occurred, and I’m proud of our guys’ efforts overall,” USC interim coach Bob Cantu said. “We just came up a little short tonight.”
The Utes and Trojans entered the Pac-12 tournament needing four wins in four days to make the NCAA tournament.
Utah opened the Pac-12 season with five straight losses. The Utes ended up 5-13 to finish 10th in the conference, but closed strong, knocking off Oregon State and then-No. 19 Oregon their final two games.
USC’s start was even worse, as it opened 7-10, costing coach Kevin O’Neill his job on Jan. 14. The Trojans were a little better under Cantu, going 7-7 in the regular season with home wins over Arizona State and then-No. 11 Arizona.
USC ended the campaign with a clunk, though, with losses to the two Washington schools, then losing Dedmon and Blasczyk before the Pac-12 tournament started.
The Trojans won the lone meeting between these teams during the regular season, beating the Utes 76-59 for their first Pac-12 road win in 22 months. But the biggest difference in that game was Dedmon, who had 13 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks.
USC struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the rematch, clanking one shot after another to fall behind by 10 in the first half.
Oraby had 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, but the rest of the Trojans went 7 for 25, missing all five of their 3-pointers.
Utah didn’t exactly shoot well — 12 for 33 — and led by seven at halftime.
The Utes quickly pushed the lead to 41-30, but couldn’t shake the Trojans, who went on an 8-2 run to pull within 47-45 midway through the half.
But Loveridge took over after that, hitting a jumper, three free throws and a 3-pointer to put Utah up 60-47 with just under 9 minutes left.
USC still wasn’t done.
Triggered by their defense, the Trojans answered with a 12-0 run, pulling within 60-59 with about 4 minutes left after Eric Wise scored on a three-point play an a 3-point basket on consecutive possessions.
“It was a great effort, I thought, by our guys coming out of the gate,” Krystkowiak said. “We managed to build ourselves a couple of double-digit leads and got away from playing the way we were playing a little bit.”
Despite missing seven straight shots, Utah wouldn’t let USC take the lead.
DuBois hit a 3-pointer, then set up Jason Washburn for a dunk with a drive and dish that made it 67-61. Terrell hit a 3-pointer to get USC within 3, but the Trojans couldn’t come up with the ball in a last-second scramble to get another shot off.
“We made great runs and cut it down, then they’d hit a big shot or DuBois would get to the rim and score a layup,” Cantu said. “But they’re playing good basketball right now. They’ve won three in a row, and I could see them winning a couple more.”