Have the Runnin' Utes finally turned a corner on the season?


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SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in over a month, there was excitement — a sort of buzz — in the hallways leading to the men's locker room of the Huntsman Center.

Every time the door to the locker room opened, you could hear the team celebrating — nothing outlandish by any means, but celebrations nonetheless. Others in the hallway talked loudly with excitement in their voice.

It was a stark contrast to a 10-game losing streak where it was a chore to stay in the building after another loss — not just for the players but for the staff working the games. Each loss was a hushed and muted atmosphere after the game, as if any excitement would sullen an already disappointing night even further.

But on Thursday, when Utah head coach Craig Smith walked into the postgame press conference after his team defeated a visiting Oregon State team 84-59, he turned to the media and joked, "I feel like I need to hug all of you" — he didn't. But the point was made; it was a long 44 days without a win in his first season at Utah.

Losing takes a toll on a team, especially when several of the games over the long stretch were within reach for the Utes — a missed free throw here or a scoring drought down the stretch in another. But the players never gave up despite all odds against a program that dealt with numerous issues, from injuries to rare medical problems that sidelined players.

"I'm just so happy for the guys because they've stayed with it and they kept fighting and going, and hopefully that can be a sign of what's left here on the back half," Smith said. "Counting tonight, five of our last eight games are at home, and you never know what can happen."

Thursday night was a time to finally celebrate. But it was a short-lived celebration after all.

It was just one game.

But one game can sometimes turn the tide and give a team the confidence it needs to go on a run. The final seven games of the regular season will be as difficult as any stretch the team's had this season. And while the team isn't likely to reel off an eight-game winning streak to closeout the regular season, Thursday's win may be enough to show the progress the team is making.

"Sometimes you make a putt on hole 10, and all of a sudden it leads into a great back nine," Smith said. "Sometimes you see the ball go in, and all of a sudden two and three go. Sometimes you find a way to win or win like this, and you never know what will happen."

The game results haven't always showed the improvement the team is making, but Smith said he can feel it — sometimes it's just something you feel, he contends. But even the style of play has improved over the 10-game losing skid.

And as much as the team wants to win every game and remain competitive against every team in the conference, it was the losing that provided an opportunity to get better — maybe even more than winning could.

"I always think that you learn more from losses than wins," freshman Lazar Stefanovic said Thursday night after he finished with a team-high 15 points and eight rebounds. "And I'm not happy that we lost so many in a row, but I think that made us so much stronger and so much better that we improved enormously throughout this period.

"I think it shows our character," he added. "I think it shows who we are as a people and what we stand for. It's hard to go to practice the day after you lose a game. It's like, you don't really feel great, nobody feels great, nobody's happy. And we had a stretch of those games, but I think we showed our character and kept improving, kept going every single day and just watching a lot of video, learning."

Winning feels great now — even if it came against a team worse in the standings than Utah — but nobody on the team is going to celebrate a two-win conference record. There's seven games left and a conference tournament in March to actually showcase the improvements Utah has made over a difficult season.

The game results may not change moving forward, but Utah is pleased with how it has stuck together throughout the worst of it to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Losing was difficult, but it didn't break the team.

"It's easy to quit, easy to let down and all that stuff," Both Gach said, "but for us, our team, including myself, we keep working hard, trusting the process, because right here we've got to trust the process.

"I think we've got some strong men in locker room, in our team — strong men, strong coaches, guys that just wanted to work hard every day no matter what was going on. To stay the course is hard. Like I said, it's hard when you're going through that. For those guys, I'm giving them a lot of credit, just staying the course, coming to practice every day, looking to work hard, get better. That led to us getting a win and hopefully we can keep on going."

With a day separating the team's first win of the year with that of a Saturday tilt against a recently surging Oregon team, the challenge to improve remains. A win over Oregon State is one thing, but it's another to stay competitive against the upper-echelon teams of the league like Oregon.

Utah has shown they can play against the league's top talent this season, but it's about taking that next step. It may come sometime in the 2021-22 season, or it may be a building block for a later season.

"Well, it feels great right now, but we need to get our minds right and get ready for Oregon on Saturday," Stefanovic said.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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