Utah wins its third straight, hanging on for a 76-75 basketball victory at Cal

Utes have now won five of their last seven dating back to Jan. 14

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak focuses on Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) and Utah Utes guard Ian Martinez (2) during a timeout as the University of Utah host the Arizona Wildcats, Feb. 4, 2021 at the Jon M. Huntsman Arena.

In the immediate postgame haze of the University of Utah attempting to give back a seven-point lead with 45 seconds left at Cal on Thursday afternoon, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak painted the locker room scene as muted.

That is understandable. Yes, the Utes outlasted the Golden Bears, 76-75, at Haas Pavilion, but the ending left something to be desired.

Clinging to a two-point lead, a sloppy in-bounds pass from Utah yielded a turnover before Matt Bradley’s open 3-point attempt from the left wing went in and out. Off a scramble for the rebound, Andre Kelly was fouled with seven-tenths of a second left. He missed the front end of the two-shot foul, made the second, and that was that. Utah survived, but it was ugly, so a muted locker room was warranted.

After Krystkowiak spoke, 7-foot sophomore center Branden Carlson was asked about Krystkowiak’s assertion that the locker room was subdued after the conference road win. Carlson didn’t have a great answer, but then, with Ian Martinez sitting to his left, half-jokingly noted that the locker room got a little more lively after the freshman guard entered following his postgame interview on Pac-12 Networks.

The key takeaway from that anecdote is that Martinez got the walk-off interview with play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson and color analyst Mike Montgomery. Martinez got the walk-off interview because he powered Utah through the stretch run, scoring nine of his 16 points over the final 6:21. Martinez earned the walk-off interview because he put together the finest outing of his still-young, still-budding college career.

“It was just being focused, trying to stay focused throughout the game on both offense and defense throughout the game,” Martinez said. “Especially on defense, that kind of gets me into my groove, My mentality is to just go out there and be helpful to the team however they need me.”

Utah center Branden Carlson shoots past California guard Jalen Celestine during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

Rylan Jones emerged from the visiting locker room Thursday in street clothes, while sporting a sling on his right arm. Right before tip-off, Robinson revealed that Jones injured his shoulder earlier this week in practice. At that moment, anyone paying careful attention to Utah’s basketball program knew what was coming. Pelle Larsson was going to take over the primary ball-handling duties, Timmy Allen was going to help out in a point-forward role, and Martinez, recruited as a hyper-athletic shooting guard, was likely to have to play on the ball.

Allen went the distance, scoring 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting while playing the full 40 minutes. Larsson cobbled together 37 solid minutes on both ends, playing high-level perimeter defense for long stretches of the second half.

Martinez, though, had his coming-out party. The 16 points mark a career-high and came in only 19 minutes, while playing to a plus-nine rating. His five rebounds showed off his willingness to be aggressive despite his wiry frame, and in terms of aggression, his defense was solid.

On one particular sequence as the second half wound down, Martinez rose up to get a piece of a Joel Brown 3-point attempt. Larsson collected the loose ball and got the offense going the other way. Off a set piece, Mikael Jantunen found Martinez in the lane as he knocked a short jumper in some traffic.

Martinez had his game going on both ends Thursday, and Utah (9-7, 6-6 Pac-12) needed every bit of it.

“I thought Ian stepped up big-time,” Krystkowiak said. “Made some buckets at a critical point in the game. The end-out-of-bounds, a 3-pointer when they went under [a screen]. Stepped up and we’ve challenged him in practice. We’re grinding out, we’re pushing him, and to be able to come into a game on the road and have some success, I think everyone is super-happy for him. It was a big-time performance on his part tonight.”

Utah forward Timmy Allen, left, shoots against California forward Kuany Kuany during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

Ugliness late in Thursday’s win aside, Utah is playing its best basketball of the season right now. Winners of three straight and five of seven, the Utes now arrive at an interesting litmus test Saturday night at Stanford (8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). At best, the Cardinal (12-8, 8-6 Pac-12) are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but are more likely on the wrong side of it following an 81-69 loss to Colorado Thursday night in Palo Alto.

Per usual when it comes to injuries, Krystkowiak declined to go into the specifics on Jones’ shoulder. The fact Jones was wearing a sling Thursday may indicate he is out for Saturday night, but Jones merely traveling with the team means the possibility of him at least dressing exists.

If Jones is out, or if he’s limited, Martinez would again be asked to shoulder some extra responsibility. He proved ready for that against Cal.

“Sometimes, I’m just too passive, so I’m trying to just get rid of that mentality and do whatever the game tells me to do,” Martinez said. “Whatever play the game shows me, that’s what I’m going to take.”