Once a lousy defensive team, the Utes are now clamping down in key stretches, and that’s why they’re winning

Utah’s 18-2 run in the second half vs. Arizona was made possible by the Wildcats’ 1-of-8 shooting.

Before any other teams tipped off their Pac-12 basketball schedules in early January, Arizona State blistered Utah's defense for 28 points in the game's opening 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

The Utes have improved considerably since that moment, when they trailed the Sun Devils by 17 points. Utah remains in the bottom of the country defensively in the season-long analytics, but keeps producing just enough defense in key stretches of games. That happened again in Thursday’s 83-76 win over Arizona, as the Utes moved to 8-4 in the Pac-12, claiming sole possession of second place in advance of ASU’s visit Saturday night.

Utah trailed Arizona 49-48 during the under-12-minute timeout, when coach Larry Krystkowiak made another plea for defense.

“If we can get stops — and I’ve said it to this team, over and over — offense will take care of itself,” he said in the postgame news conference. “That was, without a doubt, the catalyst.”

The Utes launched an 18-2 run, with Arizona going 1 of 8 from the field and losing a turnover. Donnie Tillman blocked a shot and Timmy Allen grabbed four rebounds in that phase, as the Utes took control.

That’s what they’ve done in each of their last three victories. Game-changing runs require more than merely scoring, and the Utes have played good defense when it counted. It helps that opponents have missed shots, but Utah has succeeded in rebounding the ball and converting offensively.

• In a 77-70 win at USC last week, Utah produced a 30-10 run after the game was tied 7-7. The Trojans went 3 of 16 from the field and committed three turnovers.

• In a 93-92 victory at UCLA three days later, the Utes rallied from 22 points down in the last 12 minutes by scoring 46 points. That wouldn’t have been enough, except the Bruins scored only 23 points — after producing 69 points in the first 28 minutes. UCLA went 3 of 11 from the field and had five turnovers to finish the game, although the Bruins made 15 free throws.

In conference play, the Utes initially showed their capability with 50-21 domination in a 16-minute stretch in the middle of that game at ASU. They went from 17 points behind to 12 points ahead, and held on for the victory.

The Sun Devils “didn't manage the lead very well,” coach Bobby Hurley said in a Pac-12 coaches teleconference last week, reviewing the first half of league play. “We kind of played that game at times like we were down [by 17]. We gave away most of the lead we had built by halftime.”

Utah then exploited ASU’s defense for 57 points in the second half of 96-86 win. Sedrick Barefield and Tillman teamed for 46 points in the game. They were not at their best offensively Thursday, combining for 5-of-19 shooting against Arizona, but they were on the court for Utah’s decisive, defense-fueled run.


At the Huntsman Center

Tipoff: Saturday, 8 p.m.  

TV: FS1.  

Radio: ESPN 700.  

Records: Arizona State 16-8 (7-5 Pac-12); Utah 14-10 (8-4).  

Series history: Utah leads, 34-21.  

Last meeting: Utah 96, ASU 86 (Jan. 3).  

About the Sun Devils: ASU remains just inside the NCAA Tournament field, according to ESPN’s Bracketology. … The Sun Devils lost 77-73 at Colorado on Wednesday, falling to fourth place in the Pac-12. … ASU could play its way back into a tie for second place with a win Saturday and an Oregon State loss to Oregon. … Freshman guard Luguentz Dort scored 21 points and Zylan Cheatham added 12 points and 10 rebounds at Colorado.  

About the Utes: Utah produced an unusual box score in Thursday’s 83-76 defeat of Arizona. Parker Van Dyke and Jayce Johnson teamed for 40 points; Donnie Tillman and Riley Battin totaled four points in a combined 50 minutes. … The Utes shot 59.3 percent from the field in the second half, with Johnson going 8 of 9 inside. … The announced attendance was 11,478; Utah has had only one 12,000-plus crowd this season, Dec. 29 vs. Nevada.