The University of Utah is capable of beating good basketball teams.
The resume will support that statement with wins over NCAA Tournament-caliber conference opponents Stanford, Colorado and, most recently, Arizona, which the Utes defeated Thursday evening, 73-58, at the Huntsman Center.
Those types of quality wins are joined on the resume by frustrating losses. A blown 10-point halftime lead in losing to Oregon, a blown 10-point halftime lead losing to the Buffaloes two days later, and leading lowly Cal by 12, only to blow that one, too. On Jan. 24, Utah was in control at Washington for 38 minutes, only to turn the ball over three times over the last 2:02 and lose by four.
The truth of the matter is, if Utah (8-7, 5-6 Pac-12) closes out those blown-lead games, if it closes out the Huskies in Seattle, this season would be taking on a completely different tone as the February starts to unfold, but looking back doesn’t do anyone any good now.
Another truth is that the Utes are playing well right now, having won three of four and four of six. Regardless of what Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak says publicly, many of Utah’s seven losses were tough to stomach, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.
“It hasn’t been the sting of one loss that’s hung with us, I think it’s knowing that we can play better basketball,” Krystkowiak said. “When we were at the halfway point, 3-6 in the conference, I started out a team meeting if they truly felt there was anybody in our conference that we couldn’t compete with based on what we’d done.”
When that team meeting took place, Utah had just coughed up the game at Washington, and it had not played either Arizona school. The Utes still have not played Arizona State, instead engaging in COVID-19 scheduling musical chairs with the Sun Devils, but they have now played Arizona.
To be clear, the Wildcats (13-5, 7-5 Pac-12) are good. If the program had not imposed a one-year postseason ban related to its long-running NCAA fractions case, it would be heading to the NCAA Tournament, likely as the fifth or even sixth team from the Pac-12. With that said, Utah made Arizona look quite average on Thursday.
The Utes’ defensive intensity was high, and it lasted for the full 40 minutes, holding Arizona to 37% shooting for the night and 28.6% in the second half.
Utah put five players in double figures, playing a deliberate game in the halfcourt, full of extra passing, smart decisions and good shooting to the tune of 50.9% from the floor and 53.3% from 3-point range. The fact the Utes took on significant second-half foul trouble, but pulled through anyway over the final 7:00 will go under the radar.
Not only did Utah control this game against a quality opponent the entire way, it had an answer when it appeared Arizona was set to make a charge.
With Wildcats junior point guard James Akinjo beginning to find a rhythm, an 18-point lead had been cut to nine midway through the second half. Mikael Jantunen got inside for a layup, Rylan Jones showed some nice footwork to create space for a short jumper on the block, and Riley Battin hit a triple from the right wing to extend the Utes back to a 60-44 lead approaching the under-8 media timeout.
Arizona did not challenge again.
“We knew this was going to have to be one of our best defensive outings,” said junior guard Timmy Allen, who continued to play at an All-Pac-12 level with a game-high 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting to go along with nine rebounds. “They’re a really talented team, but we did a really good job with Akinjo and we locked into the game plan.
“It was big for us to play well, see things come to light and get the result that we want.”
Utah is off until it makes the Pac-12′s Bay Area trip next week, starting with Cal on Feb. 11. Krystkowiak on Wednesday indicated the Utes may have a conference game moved to one of the off days before the Cal game, but scheduling matters remain in fluid.