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Utah’s Alfonso Plummer had a hot start at UCLA, but cooling off later shows there’s still more to work on

Plummer scored a game-high 22 points, but 14 of them came before the first media timeout

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, left, watches his team play against UCLA during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In a scene reminiscent of his 35-point performance at the Pac-12 Tournament last season, Alfonso Plummer was on fire for the University of Utah early in a 72-70 New Year’s Eve loss at UCLA.

The Utes led, 16-4, at the first half’s under-16 media timeout. Plummer, who finished with 22 points, had 14 of those first 16 for the Utes, shooting 5-for-5 from the floor and 4-for-4 from 3-point range. He pulled up in rhythm with the ball in his hands, he came off curl screens with confidence. He showed absolutely no hesitation, but did so while taking quality shots that Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak is OK with.

Coming off a COVID-fueled postponement at Arizona State on Dec. 22, followed by a short Christmas break, the Utes got back to practice last weekend. According to Krystkowiak, Plummer has been engaged and locked in over the last week. He’s been helpful to his teammates, and he’s played a lot of energetic defense. The lack of the latter was a huge sticking point last season as Plummer fought for rotation minutes before busting out late in the regular season.

All of those things Plummer has done well for the last week followed him to Los Angeles as the Utes arrived there on Tuesday evening. At that point, Krystkowiak made his recent feelings about Plummer known.

“I told our coaching staff, I’m a big believer in that you play the way you practice,” Krystkowiak said. “I’m not surprised at how Fons got started.”

Plummer cooled off considerably after the hot start, shooting 2-for-11 from the floor the rest of the way to finish the night 7-for-16 overall and 4-for-11 from deep.

UCLA did a poor job of closing out on, or even locating Plummer during the opening minutes of the game. Mick Cronin, forever a defensive-minded head coach that preaches physicality at all five positions, opted to have defenders face-guard Plummer, which paid dividends.

Plummer’s only second-half field goals were a driving layup off a turnover at the 18:07 mark and a put-back layup off his own miss with 14:22 left. Beyond that, there were a bunch of missed 3-pointers, with some of those looks being passable, and some of them appearing to be a regression to the poor shot selection that often marred his minutes last season.

“I’m playing with confidence, working on my game, trying to get better,” Plummer said. “If I do that and trust my teammates, I’ll be fine.”

What happens during the rest of Utah’s weekend in L.A. could be an interesting window into Plummer’s maturation, specifically as a guy Krystkowiak is relying heavily on for offense.

The Utes will play USC at the Galen Center on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). Trojans coach Andy Enfield will look at the UCLA game and realize, if he hadn’t already, that face-guarding Plummer can be effective. At a minimum, USC should be closing hard on Plummer when he has the ball on the perimeter. In fact, running Utah’s lone senior off the 3-point line entirely might be an even better strategy.

Krystkowiak pointed out Thursday that, given his scoring prowess, Plummer is valuable as a screener and a decoy to open things up for other guys. That is all well and good, but this Utah team isn’t going to find the type of success it thinks it is capable of without Plummer scoring. He came into the weekend averaging 14.8 points on 45.2% shooting from the field and 41.9 from deep. That 3-point percentage puts Plummer second in the Pac-12 behind Arizona junior Jemarl Baker’s 43.8%

“They did a better job of locking down on him, but we need his firepower,” Krystkowiak said. “When he’s taking open, good shots from just about any distance, I’m fine with that. It was a good night for Fons, no doubt.”

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