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Utah holds off neighbor Utah Valley, 75-67, at Huntsman Center

Utes struggle to match Wolverines’ energy until the final four minutes, but use final burst to close it out

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley Wolverines guard Jordan Brinson (23) is fouled by Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) as the Utes host Utah Valley University on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

There shouldn’t be many questions as to what went on at an empty Huntsman Center Tuesday evening between the University of Utah and Utah Valley.

For much of the 40 minutes, the Wolverines seemingly played with more energy, certainly enough energy to put themselves in prime position to steal an in-state road game for which Utah Valley was paid $40,000 for showing up. Then, for roughly the final 3:30, the Utes put the clamp down defensively, making enough plays late to avoid what would have been a very bad loss.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley Wolverines forward Evan Cole (2) drives to the net around Utah Utes forward Riley Battin (21) and Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) as the Utes host Utah Valley University on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Wins are wins, and you don’t give them back, but not all wins are created equal. Tuesday was about survival, Utah doing so, 75-67, over the Wolverines.

Utah Valley (2-3) was within one with 3:21 to play, but went scoreless the rest of the way, while the Utes (3-1) ripped off the final seven points over the final 3:10.

“Nobody said that it was going to be easy, and this certainly wasn’t, but it was a good win for our guys,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

Trey Woodbury’s driving layup through the heart of the paint cut what was a 15-point second-half Utah lead to one with 3:21 to play. Rylan Jones was fouled on the ensuing possession, his two free throws pushing the lead to three.

STORYLINES

• Utah survives an upset bid from Utah Valley, outlasting the Wolverines, 75-67, at the Huntsman Center.

• The Utes finish the game on a 7-0 run over the final 3:10.

• Utah Valley senior forward Evan Cole scores a game-high 31 points on 12-for-16 shooting.

Jones turned Woodbury over in the frontcourt two possessions later before Utah called timeout. Out of the stoppage, the Utes put together a terrific piece of interior passing. Timmy Allen found Riley Battin on the left block and as the defense collapsed, Battin hit a cutting Branden Carlson at the rim for a layup, plus the foul. Carlson missed the free throw, but his bucket extended Utah to a two-possession lead, 72-67, with 1:35 to play.

After Woodbury’s layup cut the lead to one, the Utah defense forced three UVU turnovers and held it scoreless on just three shot attempts. All of this came after Wolverines senior forward Evan Cole had his way most of the night, finishing with 31 points on 12-for-16 shooting.

“It was just a mindset and the energy that we needed to put into it,” said Carlson, who had 12 of his 14 points in the first half while shooting 6 for 10 for the game. “We just had to listen to what Coach had to say, follow the plan and leave it all out there for those last few minutes.”

Added Krystkowiak: “Certainly, they had some guys that stepped up and made some plays, so it was just a case where we made plays when we needed to, and we knew it was going to have to be on the defensive end. I thought our guys locked in and did just that.”

However one wants to define Tuesday, the Utes had that game, plus Friday night’s visit from the University of Idaho to figure themselves out. That’s going to be it for tuneups because beyond Friday, Utah takes a trip to face Pac-12 contender Arizona State on Dec. 22. New Year’s Eve offers another game at a league favorite, UCLA, followed by USC and freshman-phenom center Evan Mobley two days later.

The caliber of competition and the degree of difficulty are going to rise in a week, so shoring things up as much as possible this week is critical.

“We just need to come together as a team and find some rhythm before we go into the really big games,” said Allen, who scored a team-high 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting. “We’re going to have some challenges, but we just need to lock in and commit to rebounding as a team. It’s going to take all five of us, and we have to commit to taking good shots.”

Utah was out-rebounded Tuesday for the third straight game, this time to the tune of minus-5. A week ago, Idaho State went plus-17 on the glass vs. Utah.

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