Barefield comes off bench to spark Utah past Northern Arizona, 76-62

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Sedrick Barefield (2) celebrates a shot against Northern Arizona in Men's Basketball at the Jon M Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

Utah guard Sedrick Barefield completed a weightlifting session one morning this week, then assessed the first one-third of a senior season that was not going exactly as he once hoped.

“I feel like I owe more to myself, more to my teammates and more to my coaches, just taking more initiative to be a leader on a consistent basis than I'm doing right now,” he said. “Obviously, I want to have a great year as a senior, but I also want everyone else to have a great experience.”

That communal approach helps explain Barefield's performance Friday in Utah's 76-62 win over Northern Arizona at the Huntsman Center. Coming off the bench for the second game in a row, Barefield produced 15 points and six assists with only one turnover. The Utes outscored NAU by 21 points with Barefield on the court, validating the analytics that coach Larry Krystkowiak said his staff used in altering the starting lineup this week.

And then, just to create some mystery going forward, Krystkowiak said players' effort in practice and proper follow-through in “other areas of these guys' lives” would have as much to say about who starts as any deep-dive statistics. Regardless of what's driving such coaching decisions now and in the future, Barefield is thriving in his new role. He spoke with Pac-12 Networks analyst Eddie House before the game about watching from the bench as the game unfolds in the early stages, and responding when he gets onto the court.

This is what Barefield likely learned Friday: The Utes are a lot better when they're passing the basketball to each other, as opposed to the other guys.

Utah lost four turnovers in the first four minutes, and only three the rest of the night. Freshman forward Riley Battin played efficiently with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers, maximizing his teammates' willingness to share the ball. The team is “finding its identity,” Battin said, after Utah (6-5) won consecutive games for the first time this season.

Thank you, Florida A&M and Northern Arizona, for enabling the Utes to enjoy a Christmas break. The reality is their next three opponents – No. 6 Nevada at home, then No. 18 Arizona State and Arizona on the road to begin Pac-12 play – won't resemble FAMU and NAU.

“We've fixed a lot of things,” Barefield said. “Granted, we haven't played a team like Nevada the past two games.”

Even with that disclaimer, there were healthy developments for the Utes, once they got going Friday. They created open looks for one another with their passes. The problem was converting those shots in the first half, when they made 1 of 9 attempts from 3-point range before Parker Van Dyke hit from the left corner in the closing seconds to make it 38-30.

The Utes then rebounded better to start the second half and used 3s by Van Dyke and Battin, followed by Novak Topalovic's layup of a Battin assist, to take a 48-32 lead.

By then, the Lumberjacks (2-8) were doomed to a seventh straight loss to conclude their nonconference schedule, despite forward Brooks DeBisschop's 16 points inside. They're picked to finish last in the Big Sky, lacking any credentials to validate Utah's showing this week.

The way the Utes played offensively is encouraging, though, even if their defense has a long way to go. “At first, the coaches were emphasizing it, and now it's us as players taking the responsibility and emphasizing sharing the ball,” Barefield said. “It's just a lot more fun that way.”

So is winning, especially if the Utes can do that against any of their upcoming opponents.