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Utah Runnin’ Utes’ Alfonso Plummer was the hero, but late Pelle Larsson defensive stand secures win at Colorado

The block of McKinley Wright IV’s game-tying attempt gives Utah a 77-74 victory in Boulder.

Utah guard Alfonso Plummer, left, is hugged by guard Jordan Kellier as time runs out in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. Utah won 77-74. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Alfonso Plummer ran roughshod over the University of Colorado’s defense in the second half Saturday afternoon as part of a 77-74 come-from-behind win.

But, if the University of Utah ultimately failed to complete its improbable comeback in Boulder, what would the point of that big second half have been?

Plummer scored all of his 23 points after halftime, 21 of them coming over the final 7:49. With the senior sharpshooter having led the charge back from 19 down with 8:46 left, Timmy Allen’s free throw with six seconds left gave the Utes a 77-74 lead. At that point, they were going to need at least one defensive stop.

Allen’s second free throw was off the mark, the rebound going to Colorado’s Jeriah Horne, who kicked it to Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate McKinley Wright IV. With three fouls to give, promising Utes freshman guard Pelle Larsson had the presence of mind to foul Wright in the backcourt.

The Buffaloes did not call a timeout to set something up, but it stood to reason the ball was going to Wright, who did not have his best showing Saturday, but is always dangerous with the ball in his hands.

“They told us to switch on everything, because if we don’t switch, and somebody gets open or gets an easy shot, that would be horrible,” Plummer said. “We needed to talk in that situation, and foul before they shoot if we have to because we had two more fouls to give.

“The plan was to switch on everything before the shot.”

With 3.1 seconds on the clock and Utah (7-7, 4-6 Pac-12) possessing two fouls to give, Colorado (13-5, 7-4 Pac-12) went to Wright. With Plummer defending Wright, bruising sophomore forward Evan Battey came to set a high screen with Larsson trailing him. Larsson did as instructed, switching assignments and finding himself on Wright with time clicking down.

The underrated factor at this point of the sequence was that the defensive switch came cleanly, instead of Larsson or Plummer getting caught in traffic. The execution was well-done by both players.

“Every switch is going to be tight,” Larsson said. “It needs to be a hand-to-hand switch, so it’s very important to stay on your guy and get out on a shooter.”

Wright, who was still beyond the 3-point line when the switch came, knew he had limited time to get a shot off. To his credit, Wright began to rise at the tail end of the switch coming, but Larsson, also to his credit, reacted well. Out of time to use one of the two fouls he had to give, the 6-foot-5 Swede got his right hand up as Wright came to the top of his release, getting his fingertips on the shot attempt.

The ball wound up nowhere near the rim. The Utes had survived, engaging in what was a well-deserved celebration at the CU Events Center after the Buffaloes, who are methodically moving toward an NCAA Tournament berth, had them dead to rights deep into the second half.

“That’s where Pelle’s size comes in,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “He got up, and elevated, and got a piece of that shot. With some of his size, that was a key play for us.”

Added Larsson: “He got an on-ball screen, so I switched out and just tried to jump vertically and not foul him. He was in a shooting motion, so I was just trying to contest the shot, jump straight up because I knew he would try and draw a foul.”

Saturday marked Utah’s best win of the season, but how it responds to that prosperity bears watching. The Pac-12 threw the Utes a bone Friday by again postponing its trip to Tempe on Tuesday to face Arizona State. Next on the schedule is now Arizona, which visits the Huntsman Center on Thursday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Had the schedule remained in place, Utah would have played the Sun Devils on Tuesday at 2 p.m., then been at the mercy of commercial air travel getting home before a quick turnaround to play the Wildcats on Thursday.

“It certainly is helpful to make this a little more palatable for our guys to be able to get through it,” Krystkowiak said. “I don’t think we need to kill them and it would have been quite a challenge. We’re excited to get back. We’ll have a few more days of practice, then we have a normal travel partner-type of weekend coming up.”

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