PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak waited until after the Utes downed Stephen F. Austin to talk about his big upset.
Krystkowiak was the coach of Montana back in 2006 when he led the No. 12 Grizzlies over fifth-seeded Nevada in their NCAA Tournament opener.
He relayed that story Thursday night after the fifth-seeded Utes held off a late rally by the No. 12 Lumberjacks for a 57-50 victory. Freshman Jakob Poeltl had 18 points and eight rebounds for Utah (25-8), which hadn’t been to the tournament since 2009.
Krystkowiak wanted to warn the Utes that just coming back after a long drought wasn’t enough.
“The Big Sky hadn’t won a tournament game, Montana hadn’t won a tournament game. That was a special deal to me. I shared with them that I probably got caught up in that moment too much,” Krystkowiak said.
The high-scoring Lumberjacks were a trendy pick in brackets across the country, but the Utes used their stout defense to hold the Southland Conference Tournament champions well under their season average of 79.5 points. Ty Charles led 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin (29-5) with 14 points.
Jordan Loveridge added 12 points for Utah, which will play No. 4 seed Georgetown on Saturday. The Hoyas (22-10) defeated No. 13 Eastern Washington 84-74 in the late game Thursday at Portland’s Moda Center.
“I think he regretted celebrating so much, so that’s why he didn’t want us celebrating too much,” Utah guard Brandon Taylor said about his coach. “We got the W but Saturday is going to be another game and we’ve got to get that one, too.”
The Utes led by as many as 12 points in the second half, but the Lumberjacks closed to 48-44 on Thomas Walkup’s layup with 3:33 left. Poeltl’s tip-in made it 50-45, and he added two free throws to put Utah up 52-46 with 1:37 left.
Charles hit a 3-pointer to pull Stephen F. Austin closer, but Trey Pinkney missed the first of two free throws with 40 seconds to go. Utah’s Delon Wright made a pair on the other end to put Utah up 54-50 with 30 seconds left.
Isiah Wright helped close it out at the line for the Utes.
“They’re as good as advertised,” Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood said. “On the defensive end they’re as solid a basketball team as we have faced all year.”
The Lumberjacks had won nine straight, securing their spot in the tournament with an 83-70 victory over Sam Houston State in the Southland final.
The Utes won an at-large bid after falling to Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.
Utah had not won a tournament game since 2005. The Utes won the national championship in 1944.
The Lumberjacks pulled off an opening-day upset last year as the No. 12 seed, ousting VCU 77-75 in overtime. The game was memorable because of Desmond Haymon’s four-point play as the clock wound down in regulation.
Stephen F. Austin lost just one conference game this season, with 15 of its Southland victories coming by double figures. The Lumberjacks led the nation with an average of 17.8 assists per game.
But the Utes kept them on their heels nearly the entire night.
Utah pulled in front 16-10 on Delon Wright’s dunk midway through the low-scoring first half. Wright is the little brother of Dorell Wright, who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers and calls the Moda Center his home court.
Stephen F. Austin went cold and Utah took advantage, extending the margin to 24-15 on Loveridge’s 3-pointer with 4:39 left in the half. Loveridge made 45.1 percent of his 3-pointers this season to lead the Pac-12.
The Lumberjacks’ drought lasted a little more than seven minutes, but they finished the half with back-to-back dunks from Tanner Clayton and Jacob Parker to go into the break down 26-19.
“We got the looks that we wanted,” Charles said. “We just couldn’t knock them in.”
Stephen F. Austin: After last year’s upset of VCU, the team fell to UCLA in the next round. The Lumberjacks dropped their tournament opener against Syracuse in 2009.
Utah: The Utes have been to the NCAA Tournament 28 times, compiling a 35-30 record. … In 1944, Utah was included as a late replacement for Arkansas after two of the Razorback starters were seriously injured in a car accident that killed an assistant coach.
BIG IN THE MIDDLE:
Poeltl, a 7-footer from Austria, said his goal was to be aggressive while Stephen F. Austin focused on Utah’s perimeter. The strategy worked. But he also added five blocks on the other end.
“The big Austrian stepped up big for us,” Taylor laughed. “He did a little bit of everything.”
Stephen F. Austin: Season over.
Utah: The winner of the late game between Georgetown and Eastern Washington.
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