Bleeding Red: Pivotal final week of regular season

Skinner and Lee went home to compete
And proved to be the belles of the meet
The boys are still in the conference race
And are sitting pretty in fifth place

COMMENTARY – The Runnin’ Utes are still on life support for the fourth seed in the Pac-12 Conference tournament and a long-shot at sneaking into the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the Red Rocks proved once again that they are contenders for not just a conference title, but potentially a national title.

utesUtah played its last road game at Colorado last week. Statistically speaking, you wouldn’t think the game was even close. But in reality, it was a nail-biter.

The Buffaloes only led the game for a grand total of 22 seconds midway through the first half when Lucas Siewert hit a 3-pointer to put Colorado up by two points. The Runnin’ Utes tied the game on the next possession, and proceeded to build a 12-point lead over the next six minutes. But the stats fail to tell the whole story as the game ultimately had the potential to be a repeat of Utah’s heartbreaking loss to Oregon State with the clock winding down.

Similar to the woes that befell them just a few days earlier in Corvallis, the Runnin’ Utes were desperately trying to hold off a hard-charging team with a hot hand that seemingly could not be stopped. Stephen Thompson, Jr., scored 31 points, 24 of which came in the second half, to lead the Beavers to an improbable win. The Buffaloes’ Derrick White was trying to repeat such a feat by pouring in 31 points himself, 20 of which came in the second half.

The wheels really came off for Utah against Oregon State when the Runnin’ Utes couldn’t inbound the ball in the waning moments of the game, giving the Beavers an extra possession for the go-ahead score. With less than two minutes to play against Colorado, once again Utah struggled to inbound the ball and had to burn back-to-back timeouts to avoid another costly turnover. The second timeout was their last, leaving the Runnin’ Utes with no more timeouts for the last 1:50 of the game and intense pressure on every inbound play.

Utah could have had a repeat performance of its recent meltdown against the Beavers. Unlike their previous outing, the Runnin’ Utes did not turn the ball over in the final two minutes of the game, and went 10 for 12 from the charity stripe to seal the deal. With 30 seconds left to play, the Buffaloes missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game, but Utah was able to hold on for the win.

Having successfully exorcised the demons that plagued them against Oregon State, the Runnin’ Utes host Cal and Stanford this week for the final two games of the regular season.

Utah also got the help it needed with USC losing to both Arizona and Arizona State last week and Cal losing to Oregon. The Runnin’ Utes are currently all by themselves in fifth place in the Pac-12, one game ahead of the Trojans (with the tiebreaker already in Utah’s pocket, if needed), and one game back of Cal.

As explained in last week’s column, even if the Runnin’ Utes beat the Golden Bears at home this week and tie them for fourth place, Cal owns the tiebreaker over Utah and would get the fourth seed in the conference tournament. So, the Runnin’ Utes’ only hope of getting the fourth seed in the conference tournament is for the Golden Bears to drop both games this week. Accordingly, in addition to cheering Utah on over Stanford on Saturday afternoon, Ute fans need to cheer Colorado on over Cal earlier that day.

Meanwhile, the Red Rocks took all of the suspense out of their meet with Arizona State by putting up a season high 49.675 on bars in the first rotation en route to a 197.600-194.850 thrashing.

Both Kari Lee and MyKayla Skinner hail from Arizona, and they both excelled before family and friends who filled the Wells Fargo Arena to see them compete (making the atmosphere more of a home meet feel for Utah instead of a road meet).

“It was so awesome,” exclaimed Lee after the meet. “I had about 200 people here cheering me on, friends and family, and I just loved it.”

McKayla Skinner | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics/Utahutes.com

Skinner also had a number of supporters in the stands. “I had past teammates and coaches, and all my team here and family, and it was just so fun, I have been waiting for this moment forever to compete in front of them and watch me in college gymnastics.”

Lee scored a career-high 9.975 on the bars (with one judge giving her full points) to prevent Skinner from making a clean sweep of all events. Skinner did post a career-high 9.95 on bars, and took top honors in the remaining events to win her eighth straight all-around title this year.

The Red Rocks have their last home meet this Friday, hosting Stanford on The Hill. Of the three events to be held in the Huntsman Center this Thursday (Runnin’ Utes hosting Cal), Friday (Red Rocks hosting Stanford), and Saturday (Runnin’ Utes hosting Stanford), I am going to go out on a limb and predict that Friday night’s gymnastics meet has the highest attendance.

The Red Rocks have been averaging 15,166 fans for their home meets this season, and only need 14,950 to show up on Friday in order to break their own NCAA gymnastics season attendance record set in 2015. In fact, Utah is closing in on its seventh all women’s sports attendance title in the last eight years. In comparison, the Runnin’ Utes are averaging 12,505 fans in the seats for home games this season.

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes can finish the season strong and steal the fourth seed for the conference tournament, while the Red Rocks continue their stranglehold on the world of gymnastics.

Bleeding Red is sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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