After a discouraging finish of tournament play last weekend in South Carolina, Utah's basketball team hardly could have started Friday's game vs. UC Davis any better.
The Utes also got the ending right this time. Just when Utah again was in danger of losing a 13-point lead over the final nine minutes, sophomore forward Timmy Allen delivered a winning sequence of a tough jump shot, a steal and two free throws in a 77-73 victory at the Huntsman Center.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak had talked all week about his team's needing to do a better job of sharing the ball. The Utes responded well, as 16 of their first 20 baskets came via assists. Allen, the team's most experienced player and go-to guy offensively, especially heeded his coach's critique by looking for his teammates and not forcing as many plays.
When the Utes (5-2) needed him to deliver with two minutes left in a four-point game, giving him no option other than creating a shot with the 30-second clock running down, Allen came through. His twisting jumper from the left side kept the Utes from having another late collapse like the one that resulted in a 65-61 loss to Tulane in Sunday's consolation final of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
In that game, the Utes failed to score in the last 4½ minutes after leading by six points. This ending would have been even worse, after Riley Battin's 3-pointer had given Utah a 60-47 edge with 9:06 remaining. The Aggies (2-7) kept coming, but Allen and the Utes steadied themselves and they made enough free throws in the final minute.
“We just kept our poise,” Battin said. “We didn't get sped up and we were able to take care of business. … [Allen] stepped up and made some plays when plays needed to be made.”
Allen finished with 20 points, freshman guard Rylan Jones added a season-high 18, Battin scored 15 and Both Gach had 11. Utah's three sophomores (Allen, Battin and Gach) combined for 20 of the team's first 27 points, after they posted a total of 20 against Tulane.
The Utes “had some really good glimpses of playing together,” Krystkowiak said.
Jones made four 3-pointers, while playing with an ankle that he injured in Wednesday's practice. It was a tough week for the Utes in the adjacent Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility, as freshman center Branden Carlson injured his knee. Carlson didn't dress for Friday's game, although he stood on the court and rebounded for his teammates during the early warmup; his prognosis is undetermined, according to Krystkowiak.
The Utes also lost freshman forward Mikael Jantunen for part of the first half, so they'll need to gear up physically and emotionally for Wednesday's game vs. BYU, the Cougars' first visit to the Huntsman Center since 2015.
“I’d be lying through my teeth if I said it was just a good, old, regular game,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s always some emotion involved with it.”
Utah got by with a smaller lineup Friday, after succeeding in taking UC Davis center Matt Neufeld out of the game with double-teaming defense. Aggie coach Jim Les, a former backup to John Stockton with the Jazz, went with his own small look for about half of the game. So Krystkowiak matched up, with redshirt freshman Lahat Thioune playing only 18 minutes after starting the game.
The Utes made their first six shots of the game and hit 68.2% in the first half, when they took a 40-27 lead. UC Davis, coming off a 72-66 loss at California on Tuesday, stayed in the game by making six 3-pointers and shooting 51.7% in the second half. Senior guard Joe Mooney led the Aggies with 19 points.