Utah auditioning for role of Cinderella

LAS VEGAS -- Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak says he’s a firm believer in “the basketball gods.” So time and time again this season, whenever he’d pass through the gym an hour or so after practice and see Jarred DuBois still on the court, taking shot after shot, Krystkowiak knew the grad-year transfer from Loyola Marymount would eventually be rewarded. He had faith the extra work would eventually pay off.

On Thursday, it finally did.

DuBois’ guarded 3-pointer with four seconds remaining forced overtime against Cal and provided the Utes all the momentum they would need in a 79-69 victory in a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

The win propels No. 10 seed Utah into Friday’s semifinal against the winner of Thursday’s late game between Oregon and Washington. It also provided yet another illustration of the improvement the Utes continue to experience under second-year coach Krystkowiak, whose team is riding a four-game winning streak.

One season after finishing 6-25, Utah is now 15-17. Also worth noting is that eight of the Utes’ losses have come by five points or fewer, including three setbacks to open Pac-12 play by a combined eight points.

Krystkowiak did an excellent job of keeping his players’ spirits high and their minds focused on improving. It’s clear Utah’s program is headed in the right direction under Krystkowiak.

“We’re pleased with where we are, obviously,” Krystkowiak said. “I think the credit needs to go to our team. A lot of times it’s just coach-talk about how a team sticks together. But it was unbelievable to be able to withstand some of those losses early.”

Krystkowiak said there were times he’d arrive at practice after a tough loss, prepared to give a pep talk. But he’d look out onto the court and see his players in high spirits, with veterans such as DuBois and Jason Washburn setting the tone.

“They actually gave me a boost,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah’s resiliency was on full display in the second half Thursday, when it trailed by as many as eight points. Cal, the No. 2 seed, went up 59-56 on a pair of foul shots by Allen Crabbe with 17 seconds left in regulation before DuBois made his heroic 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession.

The Utes scored the first five points of overtime and never looked back.

“I felt like we just needed to turn it on right there,” freshman Jordan Loveridge said. “As a team, we huddled up and decided we’re here already, so we might as well go and get it.”

A victory against Oregon or Washington on Friday -- the Utes own regular-season wins against each -- would catapult Krystkowiak’s squad into Saturday’s title game against either Arizona or UCLA for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. DuBois was asked about the Utes being “halfway there” in terms of a postseason bid.

“I don’t think we’re halfway there,” he said. “It’s a one-game season. You win one night, you play the next. Plain and simple.”