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Utah Runnin’ Utes hammer No. 19 USC, which leads to more wondering on what this season could have been

Utes snap four-game losing streak with their best win of the season, buoyed by second-half offensive explosion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) defends against USC Trojans guard Tahj Eaddy (2) in PAC-12 basketball action at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

In the middle of a handful of stomach-punch losses last month, there was one particular stomach-punch loss, Jan. 11 vs. Colorado, where Timmy Allen stepped forward and made his feelings known about what the University of Utah basketball team was, and where it could still go.

The Utes had just blown a 10-point halftime lead in losing to the Buffaloes by nine, its second-straight blown 10-point halftime lead and the third time the Utes lost by single digits over a 12-day span. None of that mattered because Allen, an All-Pac-12 junior guard, wasn’t fazed.

“People might write us off, or not believe in us, or say we don’t have enough, but these last four games, we have been right there, and we let it slip,” Allen said that night after Utah’s fourth-straight loss. “I think we’re really right there. People can jump ship, but as long we stay bought-in on this, and we continue to work and grind, I think we’re right there. I’m definitely not happy with the loss, but we didn’t play great and our defense kept us in it. We just have to keep with the flow.

“I believe, man. I think we’re right there.”

Six weeks and a wildly-inconsistent slew of games later, Utah registered its fourth-straight defeat, a mostly one-sided 15-point game to Pac-12-leading UCLA on Thursday night. That one, for a number of reasons, felt like the Utes finally hit a wall, but that, somewhat surprisingly, was not the case.

Two nights after the Bruins ran roughshod at the Huntsman Center, Utah did the same thing to 19th-ranked USC, running over the Trojans in the second half on its way to a 71-61 decision at the Huntsman Center.

A 15-point home win over Arizona on Feb. 4 is in the conversation, but Saturday’s effort over a USC team that began the week in control of the Pac-12 standings is probably Utah’s best of the season.

“As long as you keep going and keep sticking to the process, you can never really lose,” Allen said Saturday night after finishing with 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds in 36 minutes. “We’re just sticking to the script, keep plugging along, and as I’ve said before, I’ll say it again. We can beat anybody and we can lose to anybody, but we’re happy with the win.”

Allen’s assertion that Utah (10-11, 7-10 Pac-12) can beat anybody or lose to anybody is not hyperbole.

Blown halftime leads in losses to teams at opposite ends of the Pac-12 spectrum, Colorado and Oregon on one end and Cal on the other, are well-documented, as is a road loss at lowly Washington. The aforementioned win over Arizona, and others over the Buffaloes and Stanford lend credence to the belief that Utah is talented, but too inconsistent to be a legitimate threat when the scene shifts to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament on March 10.

The Utes didn’t stop being inconsistent on Saturday night, not after 21 games, but the way they beat the Trojans does command some more thought in regard to how dangerous they could potentially be at the Pac-12 tournament.

To be frank, USC’s defense is clearly high-end, if not elite. The Trojans (19-6, 13-5 Pac-12), armed with one of the nation’s tallest lineups, entered Saturday night ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 22nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and No. 1 in the Pac-12 and ninth nationally in field goal percentage defense.

With that, Utah bludgeoned that USC defense in the second half, shooting 58.6% from the floor and an outrageous 77.8% from 3-point range in scoring 44 points after halftime. The Utes won’t shoot like that every night, but there is no denying that the ball movement was crisp, Allen was impactful as a distributor with eight assists, and overall, there was a cohesiveness that isn’t there all of the time. When it is there, though, Utan can be dangerous vs. the top teams in the league.

Everything Utah did well helped overcome turning the ball over 15 times, giving up 18 offensive rebounds and finishing minus-11 on the glass. On paper, those three statistics, alone, mean the Utes probably should have lost this game handily, but trying to simplify things to that extent belies the fact that Utah played well for long stretches against a good team.

“I think we can have a lot of fun if we come out, respect the game of basketball, and it doesn’t matter if you win, lose or draw,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “If you come out with a competitive mindset and you come out with a connected mindset where you’re trying to do things collectively, I think our team can be pretty good.

“As the season winds down, we’re going to have to carry that with us.”

For anyone still dreaming of four great days at the Pac-12 tournament, that road is going to be quite steep. With two regular-season games to go, Wednesday vs. Oregon State and Saturday vs. Arizona State, Utah is looking good for the 8 vs. 9 first-round game, potentially against the Sun Devils, who have won three straight and four of six after dealing with significant COVID-19 issues earlier this season. The winner of that would get the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals, with UCLA most likely to grab that spot at the moment.

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