Runnin’ Utes get back on track with 69-64 victory over Tulsa at the Huntsman Center

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tulsa Golden Hurricane forward Simon Falokun (44) shoots overUtah Utes forward Riley Battin (21), in basketball action between, Utah Utes and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

After a week of barely being able to eat, Utah guard Sedrick Barefield walked right past the boxed burrito on the table in the Huntsman Center tunnel until someone reminded him about the postgame meal.

That moment spoiled the theme of how Barefield thrived Saturday by simply taking what was available to him. Having forced and missed a bunch of shots, the senior played much more smoothly and efficiently in the second half, when he scored all of his 15 points in the Utes’ 69-64 victory over Tulsa.

Utah (4-3) needed this win against a decent American Athletic Conference opponent, after a mostly discouraging three-game performance in the Wooden Legacy in California. The Utes never trailed, although they nearly managed to give away their lead to a Golden Hurricane team that missed its first 18 shots from 3-point range.

Tulsa (5-3) eventually started making some of those shots, and that’s when Barefield emerged. After his 0-for-7 start from the field, as of midway through the second half, he ended up 5 of 13 with four 3-pointers.

“In the first half, I was just forcing the issue a little bit, and I’ve got to just trust my teammates and trust the flow of the game; that’s all it is,” Barefield said.

So ended a week when Barefield lost five pounds and practiced sporadically, amid two days of strep throat and two days of food-related illness. He also lost some feel for the game, explaining why he was out of rhythm and pressing in the first half.

There was a lot of that going around. Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak deserves credit for his honesty in not attributing Tulsa’s 15 missed 3-pointers in the first half to what his team was doing, necessarily.

“It wasn’t actually defense,” said Krystkowiak, who could say the same thing about the way his own team was missing shots.

It was a struggle for just about everybody but Utah freshman guard Both Gach. At one stage, Gach was 3 of 4 from the field; his teammates were 3 of 14 and Tulsa was 3 of 19. The Utes’ 23-17 halftime lead hardly seemed commanding, considering that if the Hurricane had hit even two 3-pointers, the game would have been tied.

That theory took hold in the second half, when Tulsa finally started hitting some of those shots. Once down by 11 points, the Hurricane cut Utah’s lead to 50-47. The Utes responded with Donnie Tillman’s assist to Timmy Allen for a 3-point play, a Gach free throw and then two 3-pointers from Barefield, with a Tulsa basket in between. Just like that, the lead was back to 11.

Gach finished with a season-high 15 points and junior center Jayce Johnson posted 12 points and 12 rebounds in by far his best game of the year. Utah needed Johnson’s rebounding in a zone defense, and he did a better job of finishing around the rim, taking advantage of some good passes from his teammates.

Johnson missed a couple of easy shots early in the game and struggled from the free-throw line (2 of 7), even launching an airball right after making the first of two shots. Even so, this was a breakout game for him, after the inconsistent play of Johnson and graduate transfer Novak Topalovic was making Krystkowiak rely more on a small lineup.

Johnson missed all of October with a broken foot, but he showed good signs Saturday after averaging fewer than five points and five rebounds through six games.

“That month off took a lot from me,” said Johnson, who’s trying to catch up with his skills and conditioning.

Like his team, Johnson made progress at a good time. Utah’s once-a-week schedule for the first half of December continues next Saturday vs. BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena.