Utes move into a tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 with a 78-69 win over Colorado

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Both Gach (11) goes for a loose ball along with Colorado Buffaloes forward Evan Battey (21), in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Colorado Buffaloes at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.

In September, Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak pictured having an athletic team that would enable him to do some different things defensively this season, pressing and trapping with what he described as a specialty group of “junkyard dogs that just want to get turned loose.”

Four months later, Krystkowiak sent Both Gach, Timmy Allen and others after the Colorado Buffaloes during a disruptive first half, launching the Utes toward a 78-69 victory Sunday afternoon at the Huntsman Center.

Various personnel losses have affected Utah’s depth and kept Krystkowiak from fully implementing that element of Utah’s defense, which statistically remains one of the worst in the country. Yet everything conspired to make the trap an effective part of Utah’s game Sunday: a full week of practice between games, the absence of Colorado point guard McKinley Wright IV and some free throws and easy baskets that repeatedly gave the Utes chances to set their defense.

How well did it work? The Utes created steals on five consecutive Colorado possessions and turned three of them into dunks during a 25-4 run. That’s how Utah (9-8, 3-2 Pac-12) built a 41-19 halftime lead and moved into a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference.

The trap was designed mainly to make the Buffs use extra time, before Utah settled into its zone defense. The scheme ended up causing all kinds of trouble and rewarding the Utes’ emphasis in practice.

“The whole focus this week was defense, defense,” said Ute forward Donnie Tillman. “We obviously want to do all this nice stuff; we’ve just got to make it happen.”

Two of Allen’s three steals came during that defensive flurry. Gach rewarded him by tossing the ball off the backboard for one of Allen’s two dunks in that stretch, part of Allen’s season-high 21 points to go with his 10 rebounds and four assists. Sedrick Barefield scored 17 of his 22 points for Utah in the first half, making five 3-pointers.

Repeating the theme of a win over Washington State last weekend, when the Utes lost half of their 30-point lead, Utah allowed Colorado to rally from 28 points early in the second half to within 10 in the last four minutes. In this episode, Gach’s 3-pointer held off the Buffaloes’ threat and the Ute walk-ons got to play in the last 1:21 of the game.

“I don’t think anybody walked out of the building feeling like we set the world on fire, but there were a lot of positive things that happened,” Krystkowiak said. “And when things go a little haywire, it’s pretty explainable.”

Much like Washington State, the Buffs just started hitting shots in the second half, when they scored 50 points and Utah reverted to playing like the country’s No. 291-ranked defense in the kenpom.com analytics. Yet after all the problems the Utes have tried to fix this season, they can live with the issue of improperly handling leads of 30 and 28 points. That probably won’t be a concern in the remainder of Pac-12 play, anyway.

They’ll also never again have a full week off, a circumstance that hardly seemed to do the Utes any good in December, when they lost badly to BYU and Kentucky. Krystkowiak managed the past week well, with a mixture of defensive drilling and scrimmaging and a day off in the middle.

The Utes clearly were ready to play Sunday, maintaining some momentum in the Pac-12 by beating another downtrodden team missing its best player. WSU had come to town without the injured Robert Franks, and Wright’s absence made Colorado “pretty dysfunctional,” Tillman said, in what he meant completely as a compliment to Wright. Shane Gatling scored 21 points for the Buffs (10-7, 1-4), although he had to make his last three shots just to finish 6 of 18 from the field.

Utah 78, Colorado 69

• Utah holds Colorado to 19 points in the first half of a 78-69 victory Sunday at the Huntsman Center, with announced attendance of 10,372.

• The Utes move into a four-way tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 with a 3-2 conference record.

• Utah will visit Stanford and California this week in the team’s only meetings with the Bay Area schools this season.